Don't Starve (PC, Mac, PS3, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U, IOS)
Don’t let the outwardly cutesy visuals fool you: Don’t Starve is a game that, from its first minute, is killing you – and the only way to stave off death is to put yourself in danger.
Developer Klei has delivered a survival simulator in which food, shelter and sanity are vital, and you’re as likely to die from lack of one of those as you are from getting eaten by the wildlife. So you must scour the procedurally-generated wilderness scavenging food to eat and materials to craft with, all the while growing your tech tree until you approach some kind of Robinson Crusoe-esque zen moment where, by golly, you’ve built yourself a self-sustaining utopia.
The goal is to stay alive for as long as possible, but once you’re dead, you’re dead. Each game has only one save, so if you do starve – and you will, believe us – there are no reloads. Only restarts.
Sunless Sea (PC, Mac)
Another indie game with procedural world generation and resource-based survival, Sunless Sea has a fair bit in common with Don’t Starve, but it also blends in some of the finest writing and atmosphere in gaming.
You play the captain of a ship navigating the Unterzee, a vast subterranean ocean full of wonder and wealth, if you’re willing to risk life, limb and a functioning mind to discover it.
Cthulu-esque creatures lurk beneath the waves, pirates patrol the shallows and there are all sorts of shore-based conundrums to content with. You must also balance your desire to explore potentially lucrative new areas with knowledge that fuel and food are scarce. Run out of the former and you may find yourself adrift in the black nothingness, easy prey for roaming horrors; run out of the latter and you’ll be faced with a potentially worse puzzler: which of your poor crew to eat first.
Like Don’t Starve, this is a game where death means game over, although there are certain perks and items that can be carried over to make your next playthrough that little bit easier. But not much.
Super Meat Boy (PC, Mac, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox 360)
Back in the day, so the legends go, games were really, really hard – and Super Meat Boy is certainly replete with old-school sensibilities, being a 2D, 300-level platformer that requires split-second timing and finely-honed reactions.
If you’ve missed the sort of challenge afforded by the likes of Ghosts ’n Goblins or the 8- and 16-bit Super Mario Bros. titles, Super Meat Boy is right up your pixellated alley. The titular Meat Boy is… well, a boy made of meat, and he’s attempting to rescue a damsel in distress (she’s made out of bandages, by the way). She happens to be located on the other side of many, many screens of blades, needles, enemies and bosses.
Will you break a controller playing this? It’s possible. Expect frustration, rage and an incredible feeling of satisfaction when your thumbs finally do their jobs, you nail the timing and you make it through a particularly gruelling level. As one Steam reviewer memorably puts it, “This is a bad game, and that’s why I’ve played it for 2000 hours.”
A Souls game in all but name, Bloodborne was created by FromSoftware specially for the PlayStation 4, and some (this writer included) would say it’s the finest game currently available for Sony’s console.
It’s difficult in the same way other Souls games are, requiring that you learn enemies’ movements and positions and master whatever form of combat you’ve chosen, all the while exploring a deadly, beautifully designed world that circles and flows back on itself in various surprising ways.
But while Dark Souls gives you a shield to cower behind as you inch through its passages, the faster-paced Bloodborne forces you into aggressive action, its ingenious Regain mechanic allowing you to recover recently lost health by quickly tearing into foes. There’s nothing cheap or unfair here though, and every time you die you’ll learn something, leading to those utterly uplifting moments when a boss that once flattened you in seconds becomes little more than fodder for your whirling Saw Cleaver.
There’s something almost transcendent in the way Bloodborne turns you into a master by degrees – but it’s wise never to get too comfortable, because there’s generally something bigger, nastier and more shocking around the next corner to bring you back down to earth with a bump. May the good blood guide your way, hunter.
Trials Fusion (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360)
While all the other titles here have combat somewhere at their forefront, Trials is a game where your only real enemies are gravity, force and inertia. You’re riding a motocross bike, you see, and attempting to perform tricks, look awesome and (mainly) not land on your head like a big wally.
Trials titles have 3D graphics but play on a 2D plane; your bike travels sideways, up and down across various insane stunt tracks, but you don’t have to worry about it coming towards or away from the camera. Don’t assume having one fewer axis to contend with makes the challenge of keeping your ride right-sided any easier, though; this is a game where an understanding of physics and timing is absolutely key, and it’s very unforgiving.
On the flip side, it’s fast-paced, allowing you to restart the track moments after you crash – and occasionally you’ll pull off a move so ludicrously unlikely that the pain of multiple wipeouts fades, leaving only joy and an immense feeling of satisfaction. Which immediately fades when you start on the next, even harder track.