stuff we buy ourselves

The Video Games Polygon’s Editors and Writers Are Playing to Get Through Self-Isolation

Photo: Courtesy Retailers

If you follow our monthly Strategist Haul, you’re familiar with the idiosyncrasies of our editors’ and writers’ shopping habits. While we think of those as the highlights, there are plenty of other, less glamorous things we buy — and love — on the regular, too. That’s the idea behind our series Stuff We Buy Ourselves. And though we’ve talked about all the things we’re buying, doing, reading, even making to get through self-isolation, here, we asked our colleagues at Polygon to share the video games they’re playing right now. To make this list a little easier to navigate, we’ve organized it by the preferred, or most popular, gaming format for each title (though many of these are available in other formats as well).

Games for Nintendo Switch

Russ Frushtick, senior editor

Not being able to go outside very often is a pretty significant drag right now, but at least Animal Crossing: New Horizons on Switch is offering a facsimile of that freedom. Every day, I wake up on a tropical island where fruit must be gathered, furniture must be haggled over, and friends must be visited. That may sound like a chore, but at a time when social interactions are in short supply, popping over to the neighborhood woolly mammoth to see if he has a new couch for me scratches an itch I didn’t know I needed scratched.

Emily Heller, commerce writer

Tactical-strategy games like XCOM 2 and Into the Breach can sometimes be a little too militaristic for my tastes, but Wargroove takes what’s fun about those games — turn-based combat, puzzlelike battles, recruiting specialty units — and wraps them up in an adorable package. Each playable commander has an interesting backstory in the fantasy world of the game, including a very good dog commander named Caesar. (I only ever play as Caesar.) It’s equally as fun to play through the single-player campaign as it is to compete against your friends in online multiplayer. And earlier this year, developer Chucklefish released a free co-op campaign which introduces a new outlaw faction led by a gruff Scottish daddy and his precocious twins. It’s just delightful.

Ross Miller, director of programming

Have you ever tried playing a game you remember from childhood only to realize, Hey, this isn’t as fun as I remember? Maybe the controls are janky, and there’s no save system so you have to do everything in one long sitting or start over. Shovel Knight isn’t a retro game, so it doesn’t have any of those technical issues, but it’s designed to feel like your memory of those NES-era titles, like Mega Man, with super-crisp controls and levels that can be played for five minutes or for five hours. And it isn’t just one game but four full campaigns, each with distinct feels. I can’t speak for my co-workers, but this is almost certainly the most value you’ll get for a (single-player) game on this list.

Karen Han, entertainment reporter

I feel like my general impulse right now is to find games that will take up as much time as possible as quickly as possible: My other recent purchases include Yakuza 0 and the new Animal Crossing, both of which will suck up hours at a time. Kentucky Route Zero has a lot to it, but it rewards a more careful mode of playing than those two games. This game, which is almost entirely point-and-click, is filled with text that deserves to be read and absorbed, rather than sped through. After all, there are no power-ups to gain or levels to beat: You’re just experiencing a story, the branches of which take on subtle variations depending on the dialogue choices you make. It’s a gorgeous game, one that will give back every ounce of attention you give it.

Other Console Games

Chelsea Stark, managing editor

If you mashed dungeon crawling and creature collection (like Pokémon, without needing to catch them all) with a daily-life simulation packed with memorable characters you’ll need to befriend and help, you’d get Persona 5 Royal. Set in modern-day Tokyo, your team of high schoolers is set out to do the impossible: change the hearts of the wicked and greedy by breaking into their subconscious and stealing the representation of their twisted desires. Oh, and there’s a talking cat. The game has enough style and charm that even people new to the series (like I was!) will have no trouble diving into a world full of diversions — playing darts with your friends, making curry, studying for your midterms while fighting monsters — and there is something absolutely perfect about losing yourself in a 120-hour-long game right now.

Christopher Plante, editor-in-chief

I’ve finished NieR: Automata five times, and, after a year away from the game, I’ve begun my sixth playthrough. I expect to complete a few more runs before the end of spring. The 2018 action game about a future proxy war between alien-made machines and human-made android is more complex than its pulpy premise and kinky aesthetic let on. NieR: Automata is origami. At first, it appears simple, almost childish, until you unfold it and reveal a complex web of creases that lend it structure. Completing NieR: Automata for the first time unlocks a variation of the story from a new perspective, and each subsequent playthrough further unravels the adventurous yarn until all that remains is a dissertation on existential philosophy and one of the smartest critiques of the potential and limits of video games. Yes, I’m serious. And yes, it’s just as good if you only want to smash a bunch of robots with weapons made from their own skulls.

Owen S. Good, weekend reporter

Actual Major League Baseball was put on hold in the middle of spring training, and Opening Day, if it even happens, will be in May at the earliest. But there is plenty of baseball on my PlayStation 4, thanks to Sony San Diego’s best-in-class sports simulation. This year, the developer added the means of creating custom teams and inserting them into the franchise career mode. An easy-to-use uniform editor and a robust library of community designs have resurrected the San Francisco Seals and St. Louis Browns in my season, and replaced the Tampa Bay Rays with the Tampico Stogies (from HBO’s underrated 1987 flick Long Gone). MLB The Show has always been an escapist fantasy through its single-player Road to the Show mode; now, its team campaign delivers as well, and not a day too soon for this aching baseball fan.

This is, admittedly, a problematic pick, because it involves Washington, D.C., in the aftermath of a catastrophic viral outbreak that has brought the nation to its knees. The problem-solving of putting the country back together involves just shooting a lot of people on sight, too. But I started a new playthrough of The Division 2 around the time its newest expansion — which takes the player back to New York, where the virus first spread — launched in March. In the first Division, players would encounter civilian non-player characters wandering Manhattan, mumbling confusion about what was going on, how this could have happened. In The Division 2, you’re in the District helping settlements of survivors who fight alongside you as you take back a city from those who would exploit our collective suffering. It’s not for everyone, but, for me, there is always an affirmation in taking a control point and hearing the civilians’ shouts of victory and survival.

Dave Tach, guides editor

Sometimes, I think that games like Nioh 2 are for masochists. Yes, this game is deliberately difficult. Sure, it sometimes feels impenetrable. Yeah, it’s often frustrating. Exactly none of these things sound appealing, and yet I keep coming back. Why?

Because nearly every defeat feels like a teachable moment. Because it insists on testing my limits. Because it forces me to better myself. There’s another way to think of games like Nioh 2: They’re puzzles disguised as demons and ninjas, and you’re there to solve them all. I have to fight hard for every inch, and that makes my journey all the more satisfying.

Julia Lee, news writer

Square Enix’s MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV, is the best time sink you could ever find. There’s so much content for any type of player. Do you like single-player games? Stick with the main story and experience some of the best writing we’ve seen from Square Enix in a long time (particularly in the Heavensward and Shadowbringers expansions). Do you like fashion? There are thousands of customization options to dress up your character and a specialized photo mode to take dope screenshots of them. Do you just want to fish? Yes, you can do that, too. There are even multiplayer fishing raids. Endgame raids for expert players? Yeah, we got that, too. There are even mini-games in the Golden Saucer — yes, based off of Final Fantasy VII. I can continue to list all the things you could do in this game, but I think you should just try it for yourself.

Ryan Gilliam, news writer

I never played the original Final Fantasy VII, originally released in 1997. But since downloading the remake, I haven’t been able to think about anything else. Final Fantasy VII Remake — which requires zero previous knowledge of the Final Fantasy series — follows the adventures of Cloud Strife and a group of ecoterrorists known as Avalanche, and it’s a perfect blend between modern action and command-based, strategy combat. It also tells one of the most compelling stories I’ve seen in a game since the original Persona 5 in 2017. It’s the best game I’ve played this year. The only problem is that it’s but one piece of the Final Fantasy VII story, and I’m already dying to see the rest. It just launched last week, and it’s exclusive to PlayStation 4 until next year.

I’ve been playing Destiny, a MMORPG with some of the best shooting around, since shortly after the first game launched in 2014. Now, six years later, Destiny 2 is in its third year of content — with more coming every three months. I find myself still logging in at least once a week to relax by shooting some aliens or grind for a cool piece of gear. The game is cooperative multiplayer, so I group up with my friends to take on small-scale dungeon bosses or find a larger group to take on powerful raid monsters — each with its own combat puzzle built in. Destiny 2 offers hundreds of hours of content, but still makes it easy for me to pull new friends into currently relevant activities. The base version of Destiny 2 is New Light, and players can download it for free. Players can also pick up expansions like Forsaken or Shadowkeep, for a price, adding more content to the game.

Michael McWhertor, senior news editor

I’ll never stop playing Overwatch, Blizzard’s shooter with an ever-growing cast of heroes that includes a very smart gorilla, a socialite and her robot butler, a very smart hamster, a robot monk, a cyborg ninja, and more. Nearly four years after it was first released, I still enjoy firing up a low-stakes game, playing a couple rounds, hoping for a loot box of new cosmetics, and living in Overwatch’s near-futuristic, slightly cartoonish world. Overwatch 2 is coming at some point, but I still get sucked into the regular cadence of holiday events and new gameplay modes that keep popping up in Overwatch.

The Resident Evil games helped popularize the “survival horror” video-game genre, but some of the beloved early entries in the zombie franchise haven’t aged particularly well. Fortunately, developer Capcom has remade the groundbreaking early PlayStation games with fancy new graphics and less cheesy dialogue. Last year’s Resident Evil 2 remake was a revelation — it turned a seminal but clunky old video game into something fresh, modern, and respectful of its source material. It’s a must-play, and this year’s follow-up, a remake of Resident Evil 3, is also good. It doesn’t quite reach the high bar of RE2, but I sunk 30 hours into the Resident Evil 3 remake this past week, beating it four times over, cathartically blasting an infestation of zombies. It’s schlocky, gory fun.

Ben Kuchera, senior editor

Doom Eternal starts with the basic Doom formula — kill everything that moves — and keeps layering systems and mechanics and weapons until it’s almost overwhelming. But that’s kind of the secret: The game stays just on the right side of too much while occupying enough brain space to be all-encompassing. You need to focus on Doom Eternal completely if you hope to play well, and that leaves little room for worry or fear — two feelings we could all use a break from.

Computer Games

Petrana Radulovic, junior entertainment reporter

From $5

Every few months or so, I get really into The Sims again and devote hours upon hours of playtime to nurture the lives of my beloved digital creations. The brilliance of The Sims is that the gameplay is so open-ended that each player approaches the game a different way: Do you meticulously re-create floor plans and design houses? Do you spend the bulk of your time in Create a Sim to make the perfect person? Do you complete self-imposed challenges, care for your Sims’ lives, or maniacally cackle and trap them in windowless, doorless rooms? (Art reflects life, after all.) The possibilities are endless, as is my time right now, so back into the crisp, pristine world of The Sims I dive. (And now’s the perfect time to get my hands on that Outdoor Retreat game pack, too.)

Cass Marshall, news writer

Mount & Blade and its new sequel, Bannerlord, are infamous for bugs, low frame rates during big battles, and awkward in-universe game logic. I don’t even care. There’s nothing really like Bannerlord out there. It’s a large-scale medieval-combat simulator in which you take the role of a custom character from one of the land’s powerful kingdoms. Then you work your way up from fighting common bandits and wearing rags to being a powerful lord and monarch in your own right. Players get to manage everything from their gear, to courting unmarried nobles with conversation mini-games, to upgrading the infrastructure of a medieval city. It’s unimaginably complex, yet weirdly accessible if you’re fine with failing, being captured, or even being killed and taking the role of an heir. Bannerlord is an awkward, janky experience, and I can’t stop devouring it for hours on end.

Nicole Carpenter, deputy news editor

In the most familiar terms, Hidden Folks is like a digital Where’s Waldo?, but with a stylish, hand-drawn aesthetic. You can play it on your phone or a computer. In different times, I would have preferred the mobile option, so I could pick away at puzzles during commutes or waiting in lines. Now, I enjoy the computer iteration, because I’m, well, always at home. The gameplay is entirely about finding hidden objects within these increasingly complex, black-and-white worlds. The little worlds feel alive; you can click on things and they’ll move, like doors opening and windows closing. Everything’s got a sound effect, too — all of which are charmingly voiced by humans. (A tent unzipping, for example, has a satisfying z-z-zzzip; elsewhere, there are plenty of whoosh and sluuuurps.) It’s complex enough that I’ve got to concentrate. But it’s all very low stakes, and I get a lot of pleasure just from clicking on things — even if it’s not what I’m looking for — just to hear the sounds.

Clayton Ashley, video producer

Stellaris was released on PC just about four years ago, and I only play it once a year or so. But “playing” a game of Stellaris means sinking 70 to 80 hours into a campaign of galactic proportions over the course of many late nights and weekends. Throughout a game of Stellaris, you’ll encounter numerous events that feel like mini-episodes of Star Trek: uncovering ancient data banks containing the minds of a long extinct alien civilization, fighting off a monstrous sun devouring space squid, or discovering living clouds floating in the atmosphere of a gas giant. These add color to the placidly satisfying tasks of building up your colonies, maintaining trade routes, engaging in intergalactic diplomacy, and buffing up your naval fleets. I’d usually feel embarrassed about spending so much time in a single-player game, but I’m now happy to play a game that relieves my stress for hours at a time. The developers have also kept the game feeling fresh by releasing tons of free updates alongside paid expansions, including robot civilizations and Death Star–style superweapons. What got me to pick up the game this time around was the new diplomacy-focused expansion, Federations. It gives you more options for working together with your fellow space nations to, for example, stave off crises that threaten the entire galactic community.

Samit Sarkar, front-page editor

If you’re familiar with Fortnite, then you understand the basic concept of a battle-royal game, in which dozens of players (150 in the case of Call of Duty: Warzone) drop into a location and fight to the death in a last-man-standing contest waged on a rapidly shrinking battlefield. Perhaps that seems like it hits a bit too close to home when people in real life are coming to blows over the last multipack of toilet paper at Target. But aside from introducing some clever innovations on a well-worn formula — like a way to fight for a second life after being eliminated — Warzone, like other battle-royal games, functions best when you’re playing in a three-person squad. When you’re trying to survive in desperate times, it helps to have friends around. Just, y’know, no closer than six feet IRL.

VR Games

Christopher Grant, SVP Polygon and the Verge

I would understand if the idea of visiting a dystopian city, where it’s dangerous to go outside, didn’t sound all that appealing to you right now — but what if I told you it’s in virtual reality? So maybe Half-Life: Alyx is a hard sell, but putting on my VR headset — I’m using an Oculus Quest with the official Link cable — and escaping to (from?) City 17 has proven a welcome, albeit intense, distraction from the alternating boredom and dread of our current dystopia. Even if you haven’t been waiting 13 years for a return to this franchise, the game’s steady, confident introduction of mechanics makes it a great place to start, and a hard one to forget.

Matt Leone, features editor

In recent years, Sega has licensed some of its best franchises of the ’90s and early 2000s to independent studios — often studios owned by or employing staff who worked on the original games. As a result, we’ve gotten possibly the best level to appear in a video game in Rez Infinite, a lovingly awkward journey through China in Shenmue 3, and somewhat less snappy dragon-shooting in Panzer Dragoon: Remake. At the moment, though, I’m enjoying the Space Channel 5 VR revival from Grounding. It’s short, overpriced, and feels like it was developed for a small fraction of what the original cost, but there’s an earnestness behind the space dancing that’s hard to resist.

Mobile Games

Tara Long, executive producer

Here’s a shameful admission: I’ve put probably over 3,000 hours into FTL: Faster Than Light over the past six years. Originally a Steam exclusive, it was released on iPad back in 2014, and, in my opinion, the iPad is the ideal platform for it. A single game only takes around an hour, so it’s easy to pick up and put down when you have an hour or two (or seven) to kill. It’s a very fun real-time strategy space game that’s got infinite replay value. It’s also known for being devastatingly difficult — the type of game that can take months to beat. But once you finally do, it all sort of clicks. I tend to avoid overly complex games with steep learning curves because, really, who has the time anymore (except, well, now)? So it’s important that I don’t conflate difficulty with complexity here: FTL is easy to learn but hard to master.

Jeff Ramos, engagement editor

Teamfight Tactics falls into a genre called “autobattlers,” and, for right now, it’s the perfect genre of game for me. Traditional one-on-one strategy games like chess make players actively think about their pieces’ positions and how to move them relative to their opponents.’ Autobattlers let you choose special characters to place across your board; when you face an opponent, they automatically fight one another until one team is wiped out. Think of it like powered-up chess, where each piece has powers and fight with other units depending on their placement. This form of gameplay engages the deeply strategic part of games that I love, while letting me also hop out of the driver’s seat during the actual battling. During games of Teamfight Tactics, I might be browsing Twitter between turns or farming for resources in Animal Crossing: New Horizons on my Switch, and with the newly released mobile version, I can set up strategies for the next round while cooking dinner.

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The Video Games Polygon’s Editors Are Playing Right Now