Before the days of Steam sales, Xbox Live Summers of Arcade and the like, summer gaming was just code speak for “playing through Final Fantasy IX for the fifth time.” And though the summer still represents a lull in the action between the end of the fiscal year and the beginning of the holiday season, it has never been easier to envy those young enough to enjoy summer vacations. August alone is an embarrassment of riches from indie studios, particularly for the Switch; here are a handful of the best.
Chasm (PC, PS4, Vita | July 31)
There are more Metroidvanias releasing in a 30-day time frame than we’ve seen in any year this century, but Chasm’s gorgeous pixel art helps it stand out in a crowd. Players explore the procedurally generated depths beneath the Guildean Kingdom as a young recruit aiming for knight status. His task —saving the recently abducted townsfolk from mysterious creatures who call the depths their home. You’ll slay monsters, discover new abilities to access previously inaccessible areas and accrue a metric ton of loot in the process. Chasm has been a long time coming; the game’s been in development for the better part of six years. But six years is a small price to play for Chasm’s remarkable polish and snappy controls. It adheres to the Symphony of the Night guidebook a bit too closely at times, but there are far, far worse games to emulate.
This post was originally written by Jonathan Bryant.
Salt and Sanctuary (Switch | Aug. 2)
Switch owners are finally getting to learn what PS4, Vita, and PC owners have known for more than two years now. The term “Souls-like” is very nearly a derogatory term in 2018, but this side-scrolling slice-em-up was a cut above the rest when it debuted back in 2016. And though a sea of Souls-likes have flooded the industry in the two years since, very few have done so as capably as Salt & Sanctuary did. As a love letter to From Software’s work —estus flasks, an action economy based on stamina management, an austere presentation, environmental traps and even the fonts and enemy health bars— Salt and Sanctuary is a condensed Souls-adjacent experience all lovingly transcribed onto a 2D plane.
Iconoclasts (Switch | Aug. 2)
Iconoclasts feels as if its creator, Joakim Sandberg, embarked on a seven-year journey to create a side-scrolling shooter starring Roll Caskett instead of Mega Man Volnutt. The critically-acclaimed title matches passion with ambition, featuring more than 20 screen-filling bosses that hearken back to Gunstar Heroes and its ilk. But much like Robin, the game’s plucky lead, there’s much more going on under the hood than a first glance would suggest. A clever tweak system that lends a diversity of gameplay styles, a surprisingly compelling narrative and a stellar presentation boost Iconoclasts heads and shoulders above its competition in a crowded genre.
Dead Cells (Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC | Aug. 7)
As one of the most frenetic and satisfying ninja-murder simulators to grace platforms in recent memory, the appeal of Dead Cells will be apparent to players within the first 15 minutes. Conveniently, that’s about how long the average player’s first run will take. Dead Cells appends Metroidvania-style exploration onto its rogue-lite framework by peppering runes that grant access to new areas throughout its several connected worlds. Though death, and not backtracking, proves the ultimate means of progression in Dead Cells. Thanks to this, as well as procedural generation that doesn’t feel like a parlor trick, the opening levels of Dead Cells are just as engaging on your 15th run as they are on your first.
Overcooked 2 (Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC | Aug. 7)
Those looking for proof that couch co-op experiences aren’t dead need look no further than Overcooked 2. The original bowled over unassuming audiences in 2016 with its chaotic, fraught co-op play that often felt like collectively juggling knives with friends. Communication is still key as up to four players divvy up a handful of ever-escalating tasks. Smartly, there are always more tasks than chefs, making teamwork crucial to success. Though more of an evolution than a revolution, a bevy of new recipes, kitchens and distractions make for a sequel that improves on the original in every meaningful way.
Cosmic Star Heroine
(Switch, PS4, Vita, Xbox One, PC, Mac | Aug. 14)
Zeboyd Games is a team of developers who have learned the lessons of their JRPG forefathers. Though Cosmic Star Heroine wears its Phantasy Star inspiration on its sleeves, it wisely sidesteps many of the trappings that prevent the genre from appealing to a wider audience. For starters, there is no MP to manage, freeing up players to use all of the resources at their disposal in each combat scenario. Battles take place in the game world à la Chrono Trigger, and there are more than two dozen recruitable NPCs that add bonuses to your ship/base of operations, much like the Suikoden series. Best of all, among Cosmic Star Heroine’s 10 playable characters is a bald, muscular, dapper, suit-wearing martial artist named Sue. For $15, you really can’t afford not to play this.
Death’s Gambit (PS4, PC | Aug. 14)
Of the many side-scrolling action titles released this month, Death’s Gambit is among the most ambitious. Though it bears an obvious resemblance to From Software titles, it also matches them in complexity. Like many others in the Souls-like genre, death is vital to success. But here, all deaths are canonical; bosses actually remember that they’ve defeated you before. Ostensibly, the opportunities for creative smack talk are endless. Death’s Gambit also boasts seven distinct classes, though none of them lock players out of experimenting with a particular weapon or build. Also like From titles, classes only dictate a build’s starting point, and not necessarily how it ends. Talent trees, weapon skills, New Game+ and a slate of other features await those brave enough to gamble with death.
Guacamelee! 2 (PS4, PC | Aug. 21)
It’s been five years since players stepped into the laced-up boots of Juan Aguacate, the mild-mannered agave farmer turned undead luchador god in 2013’s stellar Guacamelee. Developer DrinkBox Studios combined skill-based platforming and puzzle-solving for truly rewarding exploration throughout the mystical land of the dead. An excellent soundtrack, endless charm, and Street-Fighter-esque combat helped cement its status as one of the best Metroidvanias ever made, and its successor looks to do the same. Guacamelee 2 seeks to up the ante with chickens, a slate of new wrestling techniques, four-player co-op, chickens, a newly revamped progression system and chickens. A leap to new consoles has done wonders for Guacamelee 2’s visuals, and its impossibly fluid animation looks like a significant improvement over what was capable on last generation’s hardware. (But bring it to the Switch, you cowards.)