The Netflix of games sounds enticing, and Game Pass is exactly that; a treasure trove of over 400 titles at your disposal for only £7.99 a month. So, you enter the app, get out your credit card, subscribe, start browsing the near endless library, and you come to the sudden realization that there’s just too many to choose from. Where do you start?
If you’re anything like me, you stick to your comfort zone. Classic franchises will guarantee me a sense of satisfaction after countless hours spent with them; Halo, Skyrim, Mass Effect, Assassins Creed, Fallout, Hitman – all games you’ve most probably encountered and enjoyed in your free time. Household names, but not quite what you want to see on a list centred around hidden gems.
Couple this with Fahd’s fantastic list of seven free PC games, I realised my penchant for sticking to what I know deprived me of the opportunity to discover brand new experiences.
Henceforth, it was back to the drawing board, forcing myself to engage in games I otherwise wouldn’t have. Some came recommended by friends and colleagues (except Tarinder, all I could muster out of him was “Skyrim FTW”), others I’ve spent weeks sifting through the Game Pass library seeking new adventures. Today I can proudly present to you, our beloved readers, seven hidden gems I class as must-plays on Xbox Game Pass. Let’s get to it!
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Genre: Action adventure | Developer: Ninja Theory | Buy from Amazon
When I saw the initial trailer for this game and discovered that the makers – Ninja Theory – of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and DmC: Devil May Cry decided to create a personal, narrative driven action-adventure delved deep in Nordic mythology and Celtic lore I was instantly intrigued.
Mind you, this was way back in 2019, a time when big hitters such as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Metro: Exodus, Control and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order dominated Steam and console charts, admittedly I fell victim to my “stick to what you know” philosophy and decided to forego the experience.
Oh boy, did I miss something truly special, Senua’s Sacrifice takes you on a journey like no other. It’s both a visual and audio treat that uses sensory stimuli to convey the deep emotional trauma and psychosis your character experiences during the games seven-hour adventure, each chapter unravelling the mysteries behind the protagonist’s backstory.
The premise starts out simple enough, set in the late eighth century the game puts you in the shoes of Senua, a Pict warrior from the isles of Orkney arriving at the border of Helheim in a quest to save the soul of her dead lover, Dillion. Suffering from severe mental trauma because of her loss (she carries her lovers decapitated head on her hip), she suffers hallucinations that Senua believes are a curse that cause her to hear evil spirits referred to as ‘Furies,’ all the while conversing with the narrator who is also aware of player presence. Often breaking the fourth wall it will most likely leave you wondering what’s real and what is part of this elaborate hallucination.
Split into two types of gameplay, it is a mix of traditional combat and puzzle-related events sprinkled with exclusive mechanics, such as reaching a safe zone before Senua dies or using her focus ability to modify the structure of surroundings during her trials to enter the gates of Helheim. Be careful, the game sounds simple enough though you’ll soon discover that death is permanent, and you’ll have to start all over as you watch the ‘Darkness’ envelop poor Senua.
It Takes Two
Genre: Action adventure | Developer: Hazelight Studios | Buy from Amazon
When last have you played a couch co-op? My wife and I love sharing hobbies. On her part, she quite enjoys puzzles, board games, and a Friday night flick, cosying up in the living room with a ridiculously large bowl of popcorn and various sweet snacks as we enjoy the latest of what cinema has to offer.
For me, well it’s clear I love video games, and whenever an opportunity arrives to break out the second controller, I grab it with both hands. It Takes Two is a spiritual successor to Hazelight Studios’ debut game A Way Out, an experience both my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed.
This time around, the developers doubled down on the concept and produced a mix of platformer and action-adventure with gorgeous Pixar-esque visuals featuring a large number of game mechanics and mini-games inspired by various genres, melding it into a beautiful narrative-driven experience.
The story is quite endearing. You’ll take on the role of a married couple – Cody and May – who are sadly planning on getting a divorce and after telling their daughter Rose the news, she takes her hand-made dolls into the family shed and tries to repair their relationship by roleplaying her parents.
I know, it got me in the feels too, though the story does not end here (wouldn’t that be depressing?). Rose’s tears miraculously entrap her parents in said dolls and the parents find themselves on a quest to reach Rose and fix their relationship. This entails players consorting with a therapist, Hakim, who has taken the form of an anthropomorphic therapy book, as he aids them on their journey.
A sweet, funny, emotional experience you have to try. I’m convinced you and your partner or friend will enjoy it.
Genre: Action RPG | Developer: Tripwire Interactive | Buy from Amazon
Right, let’s take a break from the emotional adventures for pure unadulterated fun, shall we? Maneater is an open-world game truly like no other. I know I say that a lot, but what game do you know allows you to take on the role of a terrifying shark hell bent on killing and feeding on humans?
Maneater does. Coined humorously as a ShaRkPG, it is a single-player open world action RPG where you are the ultimate apex predator. Players explore the open world of Port Clovis which consists of eight unique ecosystems as you wreak havoc along the coast, destroying yachts and ships, and killing shark hunters via third-person combat.
The story is depicted through a hilarious in-game reality show titled Maneater vs. Sharkhunters, narrated by Trip Westhaven played by Chris Parnell of Saturday Night Live fame. A film crew follows the experience of Scaly Pete and his son Kyle as they hunt for an adult bull shark after it goes on a killing spree at a beach. Upon discovering that the shark is pregnant, Scaly Pete ruthlessly cuts out the infant shark, who manages to escape, taking the antagonist’s right hand in the process.
This is where your story begins as you attempt to grow your shark larger over time as you feed on fish, aquatic animals, reptiles, humans, and other predators. Word of your exploits reaches other hunters, and they join the fore in an attempt to stop you from becoming an unstoppable force, gaining various abilities on your journey to exact revenge on the antagonist who killed your mother.
Give it a shot, if anything its hilariously fun and addictive gameplay will see you complete the adventure in a little under eight hours.
Ori and the Blind Forest
Genre: Platformer | Developer: Moon Studios | Buy from Amazon
I admit to not being a huge fan of side-scroller adventures; the last time I played something of this nature was when Rayman Legends came to PlayStation Plus a few years back. Though, when our Editor-in-chief recommended Ori and the Will of the Wisps, I knew it was an opportunity to step out of my proverbial comfort zone. Upon initial discovery that it was a sequel I proceeded to start with the original, and boy, am I glad I did.
This little indie title was developed by Moon Studios, and takes the form of a 2D Metroidvania-styled platform adventure. You play as Ori, a white guardian spirit alongside Sein who is the light and eyes of the Spirit Tree deep within the forests of Nibel, that narrates your story.
Players must jump, climb and use various abilities to navigate the games beautifully crafted world. The art style is truly eye-watering and seems as if if it was taken straight from the pages of an epic fantasy novel. Ori’s whimsically vibrant world is littered with carefully crafted levels, thrilling and exciting escape sequences and its narrative draws comparison to the likes of cult classic Okami.
This platformer is quite engaging and has a deep emphasis on exploration, collecting items and upgrades, that lead you to backtrack to previously undiscoverable areas, akin to many games of old that clearly serve as inspiration.
You’ll have to experience Ori and the Blind Forest for yourself to truly appreciate its beauty, and once you do, you’ll be craving for more. The sheer amount of polish and incredible soundtrack will see you immersed in the story from beginning to end and it’ll all be over before you know it. I’m near completion and already can’t wait to start the sequel.
Genre: Rhythm FPS | Developer: The Outsiders | Buy from Amazon
The most recent entry to this list and Game Pass, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play Metal:Hellsinger after seeing it for the first time at Gamescom 2022. The prospect is simple; combine Doom’s fast-paced FPS shooter mayhem with rhythm-based gameplay and voila! You get a truly unique experience that challenges the ethos of traditional gameplay mechanics.
It’s by no means perfect, mind you. The story leaves a lot to be desired and more often than not takes itself a tad too serious. Narrated by industry vet Troy Parker the game is set in a hellish world known as The Realms of Torment, ruled by an imperious deity known as The Red Judge. You play as a voiceless aggrieved soul hell bent on revenge.
Players progress across various Doom-inspired levels brimming with diabolical enemies, powerful melee and ranged weapons, and of course, hardcore metal music. Hell yeah.
As Tenacious D’s Jack Black would belt out, “this is not the greatest song in the world, it’s a tribute to the greatest song in the world!” and on that note the game isn’t peppered with licensed heavy metal tracks, like say, Double Fine’s Brutal Legends. Instead, every song is written and performed by Two Feathers, a musical duo whose previous works feature in popular titles such as Battlefield 4 and Warhammer 40,000: Vermintide 2.
Those who are into metal will also notice each level, known in-game as the ‘nine circles of hell,’ features vocals by acclaimed metal screamers such as Dark Tranquility’s Mikael Stanne, Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe, and Matt Heafy from Trivium, to name but a few. Respectfully, I have no clue who these people are, but damn can they hold a chord; their vocals add a great addition and provide an adrenaline-pumping thrill as you progress through the game.
You see, Hellsinger does something special, the metal plays a key aspect to the game’s Doom-esque arenas. Presented in layers, the track starts off with a chord or two, and the more demons you slay or shoot to the beat of the music (every kill streak results in an addition to a point-based system called Fury) unveils new layers to the demonic orchestra Two Feathers have created, as you ultimately destroy each and every creature and lesser demon within the level.
I’m several hours in and loving it. It’s addictive, every level featuring its own unique and visually pleasing aesthetic, coupled with the most impressive implementation of heavy metal music that I’ve seen and heard to date. Hopefully tonight I’ll complete my redemption quest.
Genre: Platformer | Developer: Double Fine | Buy from Amazon
This game strikes an emotionally nostalgic chord. The original Psychonauts released to critical acclaim back on Xbox and PS2, and many anticipated a quick follow-up to the psychedelic adventures of Raz and his bizarre band of misfits known as Psychonauts. Sadly, though critically praised, the studio failed to secure a publisher for a sequel at the time, as many industry execs saw it as a difficult sell and too strange to take up.
Refusing to give up, creator and founder of Double Fine, Tim Schafer, managed to keep the original alive on various digital platforms over the years. After interest for a sequel was renewed through a combination of crowd funding and private investments, a deal was secured with none other than Microsoft Studios.
Released in 2021, Psychonauts 2 picks up right where the original left off. The player controls Raz, a young trapeze artist who left his circus family to become a member of the Psychonauts, a psychic taskforce that uses its abilities to stop those who use such gifts to conduct nefarious deeds.
Our adventurer is now an official member in training, and the game’s visuals, sound design, unique characters, and quirky story are every bit as appealing as the original.
Players embark on a journey through two different worlds – the real world and a mental world – which tasks the player to enter the minds of antagonists to unlock the mystery behind who was ultimately responsible for kidnapping the Psychonauts leader in the original video game.
It’s a truly trippy and quite hilarious experience. Walls cave in, rooms extend and bend, weird enemies known as censors try to stop your character and his friends, as you use a combination of telekinesis, levitation and pyrokinesis to traverse the insanely wacky consciousness and worlds of the maniacal.
You owe it to yourself to experience this platform adventure, and if you’ve never tried it before, start with the original, also available on Game Pass. Come on then, hit download.
Genre: Action adventure | Developer: Sega | Buy from Amazon
If there’s one Japanese action RPG series you need to experience, it would have to be Yakuza. Set in a fictional retelling of modern-day Tokyo, players set out in the world of Kamorucho and Sotenbori, this time dialed back all the way to the ’80s, as creators Ryu Ga Gotuku Studio take you on a weird combination of overly dramatic story telling, humorously obscure side quests and mini games inspired by the Yakuza and Japanese popular culture.
Though many in the western world missed out on the opportunity of the Yakuza series back in its heyday, its popularity and interest has grown in recent years. Encouraging sales warranted studio and publisher Sega to release an origin story of protagonist and series lead, Kiryu Kazima, while giving recurring character, Majima Goro, a proper introduction, providing a center stage for his wild and crazy shenanigans.
The plot is indeed dramatic and long cutscenes told entirely in Japanese with English subtitles could make for a fitting soap opera. Though, if you take the time to watch instead of skipping, you will find a gripping story with elements of murder, betrayal, redemption, honor, and plot twists galore.
The game’s fighting system marries the beat-em-up genre with an RPG-style levelling system. Yakuza differs from its later sequels in that it contains interchangeable fighting styles that can be used and combined to devastating effect, and it is fun as much as it is brutal. The animations are a bit wonky in some areas, especially in-game cutscenes and clunky walking mechanics, but there’s so much to see and do in this wonderful world that it is easily forgivable.
What will really keep you engaged is the large assortment of mini games, weird in-depth side quests, and side businesses that stand in stark contrast to the game’s main story. Plus the world is every bit as Tokyo as you can imagine; featuring iconic vending machines littered across the map, the city soaked with the light of neon signs beckoning its inhabitants into restaurants, karaoke bars and cabaret clubs and convenience stores, with Japanese energy drinks and food available to the player as buffs. Sega also has its own in-game arcade that allows players to experience fully playable versions of cult classics such as Out Run, Super Hang-On, Space Harrier and Fantasy Zone.
Besides all this, there are cabaret club and real estate businesses to run, mini games such as baseball, pool, darts, an eclectic taste of beautifully rendered real-life whiskey brands, and sushi dives to experience, and yet I feel as if I’m barely reaching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the sheer amount of content.
Fortunately for you, Game Pass has near every title available to download, including its turn-based, Like a Dragon spinoff, and if you’re looking for a series to delve deep into, this is surely one I know you’ll spend countless hours in without regret.
Before I leave, a few honourable mentions that didn’t make the cut, yet are well worth adding to your download queue:
- Sunset Overdrive: Developed by none other than Insomniac Games, a forgotten launch title from Xbox One that never got its flowers. The game is set in an open-world apocalypse inspired by all things punk rock, with zipping, grinding, wall-running gameplay elements all thrown into the mix, as you combat the grotesque zombies across Sunset City.
- Outer Wilds: An open world mystery about a solar system trapped in an endless loop, discover unique flight mechanics, audio and visual storytelling, and time travel mechanics, be sure to embark on this unforgettable journey.
- The Outer Worlds: What can I say, I’m a sucker for a good Bethesda Game Studio’s RPG, better yet, one developed by wholly-owned studio Obsidian Entertainment. It’s basically Fallout in space, grab this and enjoy.