The Most Underrated Games Of The Decade

The decade has come and gone, with the passage of time once again showing that we live in a meaningless universe where we ultimately die. But hey! There were some cool video games along the way. Caught in that catalogue were countless games that were woefully misunderstood, never getting the limelight they deserved. This is an arbitrary list of the decade’s best but sadly unsung games.

Some ground rules before starting: I’ve tried to keep this list within the realm of AAA or AA indie games. Suffice it to say there’s an entire wing of independent and alt-games that many people tragically ignore, a wellspring of some of the best game concepts ever, too many of which could similarly be called “underrated”. I’ve done my best in my time here at Kotaku to catalogue many of those. Their creators are wonderfully talented, and I highly suggest checking out this list of games I’ve featured over my time at Kotaku. Play these games, buy them, support these artists.

The Indie Games That Defined The Decade

While the major publishers and their buckets of cash have the potential to change the conversation in a way few games can, sometimes it's the indies, the diamonds in the rough, that rise above it all. Over the last decade, indies have had a profound effect on the industry. Here's some whose waves are still being felt today.

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Even within well-known franchises and the works of established creators, though, there are titles wrongfully maligned or else criminally underplayed. This is my list of those games, cobbled together through the process of which ones my coworkers and I happen to remember. You might disagree about whether these games are underrated. You might shout out in the comments about another game that you think should be on this list. That’s cool. These are the games I personally wish folks gave more credit, along with a few game selections from some members of the rest of the staff.


MAG (2010)

MAG stands for Massive Action Game, because the video games industry still hasn’t figureed out how to name things normally. On the surface, it’s a multiplayer first person shooter, but its scale was truly ambitious for the time. MAG matches could hold 256 players, all battling on large maps with varied design. There were three factions to choose from, and its best game mode had all of them face off for domination. PlanetSide 2 would eventually dethrone it as the huge online shooter de jour, but MAG had a real grittiness that went underappreciated. The game’s servers turned off after four years of service, ending a game that paved the way for many of the large multiplayer experiences we take for granted now.

Alpha Protocol (2010)

Obsidian is well-known for its role-playing games, particularly the dynamite Fallout New Vegas. Working in established franchises only gets you so far, however, and one of the studio’s strangest projects was Alpha Protocol. It was an RPG about being a spy and trying to survive in a world where you never knew who to trust. Alpha Protocol’s combat sucks, but the amount of variables it tracks in its narrative is terrifying (in a good way). There are actions you take at the start of the game that can drastically affect everything later on, but also, other characters have comments even for small stuff like the shirt you choose to wear. Bosses had secret solutions where you could drug them beforehand or else sneak around the encounter altogether. Often, you could turn them into begrudging allies. No playthrough is ever the same. It’s clumsy and buggy, but I’ve never seen anything else quite so detailed.

BioShock 2 (2010)

I’ll never understand why BioShock 2 didn’t resonate as much as the original. Where BioShock just seemed impressed by its own cleverness, BioShock 2 opted to add genuine emotional stakes. It worked, resulting in a game better than the original. Players controlled an experimental Big Daddy whose decisions ultimately affected the moral path his grown-up Little Sister would take. Its choices were more complex than “do I kill these kids or not,” the weapons were more interesting, and its DLC, “Minerva’s Den,” laid the groundwork for games like Gone Home. Also, I’d rather play this than put up with BioShock Infinite’s tepid ideological slurry.

Dragon Age II (2011)

Here’s the truth: Dragon Age 2 is the best game in the series. It’s not as grand in scope as the other games—it wasn’t even originally planned to be a full sequel—but it has the most focus as a story. Equal parts funny and heartbreaking, Dragon Age II’s cast of characters stumble through their lives with a believable messiness. It is a story of power structures, persecution, and identity. I don’t want to hear anyone bitch about recycled assets ever again given that the game has writing this good.

Driver: San Francisco (2011)

Mike and Stephen swear by this game, which was unsung enough in its time that we ran an article titled “Driver San Francisco is the Best Game No One is Talking About.” The big hook was the ability to leap to any car in the game in order to complete your mission. Instead of hopping out of your car and stealing another, you could simply shift perspectives for a seamless car chase.

Binary Domain (2012)

What do you get when Toshihiro Nagoshi and the team behind Yakuza make their own spin on Gears of War? Turns out, you get one of the best science fiction titles of the decade. In a world where robots can now pass as humans, a team of special ops soldiers need to determine where these beings are coming from. Their mission will ultimately uncover evidence of a new form of life that pushes the bounds of what it means to be human. It’s a smart game, and the combat—you could blast off robot limbs and use voice commands to direct your teammates—is some of the finest action in the genre.

Sleeping Dogs (2012)

What if Grand Theft Auto had heart and was good? Then you’d have Sleeping Dogs. Not only does it feature one of the best acting performances in a game with Will Yun Lee’s portrayal of the protagonist Wei Shen, it also mixes its story and mechanics together. See, Wei Shen is an undercover cop infiltrating the Triads, and Sleeping Dogs strictly tracks if you’re a good cop or bad cop. Wei Shen’s story goes to dark places, and there’s a sense that everything could go wrong at any moment. It’s a genuinely good crime story, and the fact the series never took off is… dare I say, criminal.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry (2013)

Assassin’s Creed’s globetrotting, time-travelling adventures can often feel like a light excuse to meet famous people. Is that da Vinci? What’s Karl Marx doing here? But in the best cases, such as Freedom Cry, the series uses its various settings to explore important historical events. Black Flag was already a great game, a swashbuckling character study in personal responsibility. Freedom Cry builds on that, following the assassin Adéwalé in the lead-up to the Haitian Revolution. It tackled issues of slavery and violence with a surprising frankness. It wasn’t perfect—the game’s systems clash against its story—but it took a risk that largely paid off.

Remember Me (2013)

Another Mike Fahey favourite! This is Dontnod Entertainment’s first game, an overly ambitious action title about a memory manipulating resistance fighter striking back against a massive corporation. It’s standard cyberpunk stuff, but Remember Me has a great hook: you can rewrite and explore your enemies’ minds. Whether that’s finding hidden information by watching memories in real-time or trying to rewrite a corporate CEO’s mind to make her more empathetic, there are a lot of interesting scenarios. Remember Me sets a standard for Dontnod: it’s an intelligent game with a cool core concept and more than a little jank. That ambition has served the studio well, leading to similarly interesting games like Life is Strange 2 and Vampyr.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (2013)

It’s hard to think of a series as inconsistent as Call of Juarez. Coming after the abysmally fucked up Call of Juarez: the Cartel, Gunslinger abandoned grittiness for delicious penny-novel pulp. It’s a blasty arcade shooter based off the tall tales of a saloon drunkard named Silas Greaves who is more than he seems. His stories are unbelievable and often change in the middle of the telling. Silas might decide the story is better if he was actually outgunned, and the game will correspondingly take most of your ammo away. Sometimes, he’ll tell a story of what could have happened before telling the real thing. Combine this tongue-in-cheek silliness with some tense high noon duels and you have a recipe for a fantastic game.

Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (2013)

People complain way too much about Final Fantasy XIII and its sequels. The first game was rough, but the following titles smoothed out the combat systems and really expanded on the setting. Lightning Returns is the final game in the trilogy, and it plays out like a mixture of Majora’s Mask and Final Fantasy X-2. With only 13 days to save the world, Lightning needs to unravel conspiracies and complete sidequests to save wayward souls. There’s tons of melodrama and fancy fashion, making for one of the secret best Final Fantasy games.

Virginia (2016)

Virginia is a risky game. It’s a crime story without any spoken dialog. Instead, it uses music and editing techniques to reveal its greater mystery. Taking a page from games like Thirty Flights of Loving, it packs an intense story into a bite-sized experience that culminates in one hell of a climax. It was perhaps too experimental compared to contemporaries like Firewatch and slipped under the radar with relatively little notice. It’s worth checking out, lasting no longer than a movie you might watch on Netflix.

Watch Dogs 2 (2016)

Watch Dogs’ protagonist Aiden Pierce is a piece of shit. Watch Dogs was not a good game. But what if, instead of focusing on an edgy vigilante, we had a story about a likable counterculture hackers fighting back against state security and invasive tech? What if we ignored the bad comic book nonsense in favour of something that speaks to current issues? Watch Dogs 2 does just that, following young hacker Marcus Holloway as he exposed FBI corruption and Silicon Valley overreach. When I mentioned Watch Dogs 2 to my coworker Josh Rivera this morning, he agreed that it was a great example of a game that tackles some real issues.”I like that it’s mean in a real way,” he said. “Mean about something real.” It was a remarkable shift for what had, frankly, started out as a boring series.

Echo (2017)

When Riley reminded me of this game, I said “of course!!” so loudly that I got a few looks in the office. Echo is a stealth game in which enemies learn how to perform whatever actions you do. At first, they know how to walk around, and that’s about it. Whenever the lights are on in the strange facility you’re exploring, whatever actions you do are recorded and learned by the enemies. Jump over a hazard? They’ll be able to do it. Fire a gun? Well, shit, now they can too. If you avoid performing these actions for a certain amount of time, the enemies will unlearn them. Echo builds its levels such that it forces you to perform actions that make enemies dangerous, and challenges you to avoid using your best options lest they get turned against you. Part stealth, part horror, Echo is an absolute gem.

The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories (2018)

The Missing starts with a message: “This game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are.” On the surface, The Missing is a bloody and gory puzzle platformer. Underneath, it is a story of exclusion and depression, viewed through an explicitly queer lens. Director Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro approaches these topics carefully. It’s a clever game, but more importantly, it cares about its characters’ pain. Deadly Premonition is SWERY’s best known work, but The Missing is certainly his best to date.

Pathologic 2 (2019)

The original Pathologic came out in 2005, telling the story of a plague-ridden town with dark secrets. That doesn’t really do the game credit as an explanation, however. It was an unsettling, hostile, and bizarre work where the fourth wall was fuzzy and nothing ever worked out for the player. Pathologic 2 reimagines that experience and hones it into an even better experience. This is a game where a single stray bullet can spell disaster, where wasting too much time creates a ripple effect of tragedy. Newcomers will bristle at how inhospitable Pathologic 2 is, but sticking with it reveals an uncomparable story of alienation and pain.


Comments

    Dragon Age 2 and FF XIII were trash compared to the games that came before them.

      I’m sick of seeing people defend 13. The story was nonsensical garbage told through bad writing. No other FF is as boring and over produced as it.

        Counterpoint: I'd rather play 100 hours of XIII than one hour of X.

        XIII-2 is genuinely good, but Lightning Returns is garbage.

          Something about the whole story irked me. Different strokes I guess.

          Blasphemy! X was amazing, not VI, VII, VIII, IX amazing but amazing.

          XIII is worse to FF than Duke Nukem Forever is to, well, Duke Nukem.

        XIII has my favourite combat system in all the Final Fantasies to date, but it not being fully unlocked until 20-30 hours in does hurt it A LOT.

    Would be nice if The Missing was available in Australia on Xbox :'(

    I finshed FF 13 1+2 (on launch), the third game however with its time limitations (and clock) just drove me mad and I counldn't be bothered finishing it at all.
    Alpha Protocal - finished but not relly enjoyed just due to the fact that like many games it puts you against a boss when you've been sneacking around for the last 30 mins.
    Bioshock 2 - don't recall actually finishing game (but near the end), but definately better the the 3rd.
    Dragon Age 2 : Finished around 5 times under various story lines. But I enjoyed the first more. In general though the story for the games are decent, the game play and length has issues.
    Remember Me : almost finshed the game, got to last boss and then ofcourse it just kept breaking the game.

    I agree on Dragon Age 2. If I had to back and play one of them, it would be 2. 1 was great but clunky and meandering and 3 was hot trash that had some great characters (not you Sara). 2 had its issues but I was connected to my character the most as well as my companions.

      While I loved DA2, I hated the change in mechanics. The engine for DA:O allowed for much more in depth and varied characters. Then they made DA2 using the Mass Effect engine and all that was lost.

      Great story, great characters, so lots to love.

    I was ready to go with you on this list but then you included Lightning Returns, the actual worst Final Fantasy-related game ever made (yes I'm including both X and 2 in that list) so I dunno.

    Remember Me is great, though.

      Worse than Let's Make a Girl Band X-2? Hmmm. I dunno...

        Christ, yes. Girl Band was genuinely mechanically solid.

        Final Fantasy X-2 is one of my top five favourite Final Fantasy games and I will not hear a bad word said against it.

      Well, I can tell you're completely broken, because FFX is great. It's a Polynesian Post-Apocalypse, which makes for a great and unique setting, and has some of the most interesting character arcs and villains in the series.

      Worst Final Fantasy was III. My least favorite is XV, but I'll willingly admit it's at least better than III.

    I loved Sleeping Dogs. Loved it. But given it got a current-gen remaster was it that underrated? On the other hand, DA2 was such a massive disappointment I can't even begin to discuss it.

      It was underrated in that it was better than GTA in almost every way, but didn't sell well enough to get a sequel.

    I bought The Missing on sale from the eshop months ago and really should get around to playing it. Maybe over Christmas holidays. If I can pull myself away from Pokémon, DQXI and Fire Emblem (man this game has staying power - still playing 5 months later).

    @Heather I can't take the opinion of someone who believes DA:2 is better than DA:1 seriously. I am not sure if you are just writing clickbait for comments or you actually believe what you say. Either way I won't be following any of your recommendations or future articles.

      You know, people ARE allowed to have different opinions to you. If you only listen to people you agree with you have... well the current time and political situation really. I blame facebook. And people who actively shun anything that's different or challenging to their current views.

    I'll second Alpha Protocol, Binary Domain, and Remember Me.
    Definitely some of my favourite games of the last decade.

    These aren't underrated.

    Underrated would be something like Natural Selection 2.

    I think this is the first time I’ve seen anyone say the cast of Watchdogs 2 is likeable.

    I agree with enjoying Bioshock 2 over Infinite. The multiplayer in that was fun in a Timesplitters 2 arcadey way.

    Remember Me I picked up after playing through LiS/BtS and I enjoyed it. It wasn’t without flaws, and I think it could have used a lot more of the memory remixing mechanic since that felt really under-utilised.

    Sleeping Dogs was amazing and definitely my favourite game of the GTA-alikes. At first I thought it was too rough around the edges but once it gets going it is fantastic.

    Man, I loved Call of Juarez Gunslinger. Nothing fancy, knew exactly what it was trying to be and what it was trying to do, and did it well. Lots of fun.

    Most underrated games? Seriously? Some of those games have been repeatedly on lots of top games lists, particularly Bioshock 2, Sleeping Dogs and Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.

    having dragon age 2 and lightning returns here while sleeping dogs' studio shuttered in part because not enough people played it (the bizarre mmo decision was most of it) is 7/10 syndrome

    Bioshock 2 took the worst and most boring part of the first game, turned it into the main mechanic, and then shoved in abysmal multiplayer.

    No thanks.

    I really must play Sleeping Dogs sometime. People I knew raved about it at the time, and for some stupid reason, I never bought it. More fool me.

      It's GTA, but the protagonist is likeable and the combat system is Batman Arkham.

    Driver San Francisco was absolute trash

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