PS4 sleeper essentials

As evident from recent sales figures, there’s a lot of new PS4 owners. Console bundles have reached a $300 sweet spot, and both the Xbox One and PS4 have built up a decent library. But most game recommendations I’ve seen online – from enthusiast (Polygon, Kotaku) to mainstream (BBC, The New York Times) – feel safe. They lean heavily on mega hits and franchise sequels like Halo 5, MGS V, and Destiny.

Granted, they aren’t bad choices. I’m currently hooked exploring the wastelands of Fallout 4, and I’d recommend it to almost any RPG fan. Yet the PS4 has many strong games that received little coverage. They are accessible, cover a wide range of genres and are affordable. Here are some of my favorites from the past year:

Axiom Verge

There’s been a rash of retro-inspired side scrolling action games lately. Many take inspirations from classic Metroid and Castlevania gameplay (hence the sub-genre moniker “metrovania”). I’ve played my share over the past few years, but I’ve found none as engrossing and rewarding as Axiom Verge. Unlike other metrovania games, this isn’t modernized gameplay with a wink and a nod to the past. It slavishly adheres to the sounds and graphics of the Super NES era, and the end product is gorgeous. Movement and gameplay feels right, like a top-tier Nintendo game. Interesting glitch mechanics, a large array of weapons and a reasonable difficulty curve round out the package.

PSN, $19.99

Broken Age

Broken Age is a coming-of-age adventure game where you navigate two characters through a hostile world. Like Axiom Verge, Broken Age takes strong cues from the past. It’s directed by Tim Schafer, who designed 80s and 90s adventure classics like The Secret of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. Like most adventure games, there’s lots of dialog and puzzle solving. Some puzzles can be difficult but rewarding when you figure out the solution. The art design is incredible, like you’re watching a modern children’s storybook. And a streamlined inventory and control scheme avoid many common pitfalls of the genre.

PSN, $24.99

DriveClub Bikes

The PS4 has a weak reputation for driving titles. Sony’s marquee Gran Turismo looks months away from any PS4 presence. A new Need for Speed and The Crew underperformed both in sales and with critics. And the arcade heavy DriveClub was a much maligned first-party release. A strong graphics engine couldn’t save its poor car handling and a broken multiplayer during the game’s opening months.

But a year of cleanup makes a huge difference. DriveClub’s networking features are now rock solid. The game engine has added dynamic weather, replays, and a photo mode. And now with 36 tracks, DriveClub arguably has one of the strongest track sets in any driving game.

Yet something about the car handling still feels off. DriveClub Bikes, a standalone expansion where bikes replace cars on the track, helps remedy this problem. The existing physics model’s twitchiness pairs well with arcade-style biking. And the game’s already great sense of speed is magnified on a bike.

Granted DriveClub Bikes is surface deep compared to the Forza and Gran Turismo series. It’s best suited for quick arcade racing sessions. Yet there’s still a lot of game here. There’s a linear tour mode that will take hours to complete and unlock all content. And a highly customizable single event mode adds variety for leaderboard competition.

PSN, $19.99

Super Mega Baseball

Modern sports games have an intimidating learning curve. Game controls are often bewilderingly complex. Modern computing power provides faster action and smarter AI. And to heighten realism, gameplay requires an intimate knowledge of the sport in question.

That’s exactly why Super Mega Baseball is such a welcome throwback. Gameplay feels ripped out of the 16 bit era, where arcade simplicity trumped realism. Anyone with basic baseball and gaming skill should be able to pick up bat and pitch basics quickly.

Note that the simplification extends to game options as well. There’s just a simple exhibition and single season mode. That’s slim versus an average MLB The Show or Fifa title. Yet given the high amount of difficulty customization (a 99 point scale for batting and pitching), the game remains challenging as you’d like over the long run.

And the fundamental play and physics of baseball feel right. The exaggerated and cartoonish players add approachability. And all players are fully customizable: appearance, name, and stats.

PSN, $19.99

Velocity 2X

Velocity 2X is a hybrid, part vertical scrolling shmup a la Space Invaders, part side scrolling platformer. The focus on collecting crystals adds a 90s, Sonic the Hedgehog vibe throughout.

Individual levels usually have you jump between the shmup and platforming models to keep action fresh. Yet both modes share a similar control scheme so any transitions don’t feel jarring. Unlike the aforementioned Axiom Verge, this isn’t a retro arcade trip. The sci-fi art direction is both original and at times stunning. And the pulsing electronic soundtrack matches the onscreen action well.

PSN, $19.99