Sometimes I play video games because I want to beat stuff up. But I wanna beat stuff up, for, like, a purpose, man. Like to save the world or help a charming character survive a difficult scrape. In this third installment about the games that got me through nursing school, I’m focusing on games where you gotta fight but there’s also some real narrative juice.
Basically all of these games are RPGs and roguelites. RPGs (or “role playing games”) are, simply put, games where you control a character (or characters) and undertake a narrative or quest-based endeavor. The endeavor sometimes involves dungeons (which may or may not have puzzles you have to complete to advance) and almost always involves fighting.
Roguelites also almost always involve fighting but the main objective is to survive to the end of a “run,” which typically comprises a series of levels, stages, or days. The expectation in a roguelite is that you will die at least several times before you make it to the end, but dying successively usually allows you to unlock new abilities/equipment/etc that make your character slightly more powerful the next time around.
To me, a great game in either of these genres has at least two of the following four elements:
- a world that rewards exploration
- interesting game mechanics
- a cast of characters I want to spend time with
- an intriguing narrative or mystery
Note that there are a couple of deck-building roguelites in here which probably could have gone with the card and puzzle games, but I put them here because they just feel more fight-y and less puzzle-y. It’s about the vibes, okay?
I hope you find a game here that you will enjoy punching (or slashing, magick-ing, shooting, slicing) your way through.
If You Like Arguing as Much as Fighting: Griftlands
Griftlands is a spicy little cyberpunk dystopian deck-building roguelite. I love a game that lets you be self-serving, morally ambiguous, or even pretty evil if you want, and Griftlands fits the bill. You get to play through not one, but three gritty narratives about space politics and class warfare. In each tale you have a significant amount of choice to connive, protect, brawl, bribe, and convince your way through the story to try to survive to the end (and fulfill whatever mission you are supposed to complete for the faction you have thrown in your lot with), and two different decks–one for battle (stabby stabby), and one for “negotiating” (shouty shouty).
As I mentioned, Griftlands has three completely separate stories in different locations with different protagonists; each time you beat a run with one protagonist, you unlock another one. There are also several momentous decisions in each story about who to support or what goal to pursue, giving the game a lot of replayability value. I found this game to be incredibly strong both from an interactive narrative perspective–the characters, especially the protagonists, are quite compelling–and a gameplay fun factor perspective.
Writing this is actually making me want to pick the game up again for another playthrough, which is always a good sign.
For Retro-gaming Science Fiction Weirdness: Eastward
This narrative-heavy pixel RPG about a dad and his adopted daughter traveling through a dystopian steampunk world plays like a fun, offbeat RPG from the 90s, with a cool art style, memorable characters, and lots of interesting places to discover in every new location.
Vibes-wise, it’s like Studio Ghibli meets Satoshi Kon. In other words, it’s cute, heartwarming, and whimsical, with a really weird and unsettling dark side with clear anime-inspired and pulp science fiction elements. The storytelling and compelling mystery of Eastward sucked me in; I played it during every free moment for a couple weeks (which was a lot because I mostly played it over one of my holiday breaks). I was excited to uncover the secrets hidden in and around the world.
Gameplay is classic Zelda-style, with a twist: you fight in real time by swinging weapons and shooting at things, and there are tons of puzzles. The twist is that some puzzles are solved by switching back and forth between John (dad) and Sam (daughter) and completing different tasks on the same screen with each character. Because of this mechanic, the puzzling can get pretty elaborate. Overall, this game gave me a delightful and weird place to explore, and I wanted to uncover every little secret corner and meet every character. I will say that certain aspects of the plot tend to prioritize “trippy vibes” over narrative coherence (I still don’t understand the ending, like, at all) but that did not dampen my enjoyment of the experience all that much.
For Legend of Zelda Lovers: Garden Story
If The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past is a core gaming memory for you, I have an extremely adorable recommendation: Garden Story. In this game you play as a PRECIOUS LITTLE GRAPE GUY named Concord who needs to protect his homeland, the Grove, a land nestled in the roots of a giant, divine tree, from the Rot. The Grove is populated by a bunch of sentient fruits and vegetables and also frogs who will help you on your way.
Gameplay is Link to the Past-style: you adventure around to dungeons in different regions, you solve puzzles, you beat bosses. The whole package is set apart because it so charmingly delivered and the world so fully imagined. There are also some light sim elements that you can take part in as you work your way through the regions, including gathering resources, fishing, farming, and crafting.
An important part of advancing the plot is fulfilling villager requests (often involving the sim elements) in order to unlock more and better equipment. Truly my only complaint about this game is that it is so adorable and fun that I wish it was longer (my total playtime was about 15 hours, and I was fairly completionist).
For Those Who Love Zelda And Also Sim Games: Moonlighter
Have you ever thought, “Wow, I do love a Zelda-style dungeon-crawler, but I really wish I could also own a shop”? Then boy howdy, do I have the game for you. In Moonlighter, you run a shop by day and spend your nights exploring the mysterious old dungeons by your hometown to collect arcane material to sell. Your backpack for each nightly dungeon run only has so much space in it, so you have to prioritize valuable materials (not to mention your own adventuring supplies!) in limited space.
Each dungeon is pretty massive and requires many in-game days of exploration to fully plumb. Also, if you die, you lose most of your stuff for that run, so one of the elements of strategy here is knowing when to cut your losses. In fact, there are several overlapping layers of strategy in this game–how to fill your backpack when adventuring, when to return home to ensure you keep your valuable items, what to sell and for what price point, what gear to upgrade, which helpful items to bring with, how to explore the dungeon systematically–that turn the game into quite a rich experience even though it is pretty light (read: practically nonexistent) on story.
The pixel art is really pretty, though, and for anyone who loves an exploration-slash-adventure game (me! It’s me!) this is a fun twist.
If You Want to Feel Like God: Loop Hero
In Loop Hero, the universe has ended, except for one mysterious man who resists being unmade and drags a small little village back into existence along with him. You don’t really play as this man, who walks repeatedly around a circular road in each playthrough on autopilot and fights the enemies in his way without any direct control by the player. Instead, you strategically fill in the road and the space around the road with monster habitats, terrain, and helpful buildings by picking cards from your hand and placing them as tiles on the loop and its environs.
These cards impact the loop the man is walking around in various ways by adding enemies, buffs, special mechanics, and so on. Ultimately you want the man to level up enough that he can successfully face a powerful boss. In between loop runs, you upgrade the little town-in-the-nothingness, which in turn impacts what cards you have access to when your guy is loopin’.
I’m realizing as I’m typing this that this all sounds sort of bananas, and it is! This game is very hard to describe. But it sucked me in completely. The gameplay loop (pun intended, haha) is incredibly satisfying; every time your lil walking guy dies, you will immediately want to try a new and improved strategy. And there’s something so satisfying about watching the screen fill up with the tiles you place to shape the walking man’s ordeal.
While I wouldn’t say there’s much narrative, what is there is intriguing as you learn more about the ended world and what has caused the apocalypse. Full disclosure that I have not actually beaten this game as the final challenge is VERY hard, but honestly I am not even mad about it. I have played it for over 75 hours and I regret 0 of those hours.
For Fire Emblem Lovers: Dark Deity
The Fire Emblem series has a super-special place in my heart. So by the transitive property, any good homage to Fire Emblem also has a super-special place in my heart. Dark Deity is a tactics RPG that feels like an old-school FE game. Like, from the Gameboy Advance era. The gameplay truly gives me everything I want from a turn-based tactics RPG that has grid-based movement. There’s a weapons triangle wherein certain weapon types have the advantage over other weapon types (something classic FE fans will remember!).
There are also some cool mechanics unique to the game that offer new ways to customize your army to your specifications. For example, each character has the option between 4 different weapon types at any given time, which you can upgrade with a limited number of points across your entire army. This requires you to invest more in certain characters–and weapons–to make sure your army is powerful enough to face enemies.
There’s something charmingly earnest and retro about the whole thing. The characters fall into familiar archetypes and the story treads well-worn fantasy tropes with world-changing forces and mysterious societies, and yet, I felt totally engaged. While it does not impact combat the same way it does in some Fire Emblem titles, characters can also bond with each other in this game, unlocking additional dialogue between them that you can view in between battles in your camp. I enjoyed this extra dialogue immensely.
Some of the writing in the support dialogue and in the main game narrative borders on corny, but frankly, that added to the retro appeal for me. The character design is also superb; I found myself thinking “I want to cosplay that” at least five times.
Also, there’s a DLC available where everyone wears a swimsuit outfit all the time. What more could you want from a game??? (A sequel, that’s what. And thankfully one is happening!!)
Truthfully, I feel like I haven’t even emphasized enough how much I love this game but I don’t have more to say because it’s really just a pitch-perfect execution of a standard tactics RPG. No notes!!!! Buy it!!!
Honestly, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these games if you are at all interested in the RPG or roguelite genres. They are all bangers that I thoroughly enjoyed for many hours. I would even say several of these are particularly good choices for dipping your toes in the water of a new genre, especially Dark Deity for tactics RPGs, Garden Story for classic dungeon-crawling RPGs, or Griftlands for roguelites. I am also always on the lookout for more indie games I may have overlooked, so if you have additional recommendations for the class in which you must FIGHT to survive or advance the story, please drop them in the comments!