Feature Article

September's Best Games You Didn't Know About, Ranked

Secret stash.

Wouldn't it be great if you could play with D-Dog in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain outside of missions? Imagine that: A walk around a park, sharing an ice cream cone, maybe even snuggling up to watch a movie on the couch.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, the big games that come out each month are pretty snazzy. We all know this. They give us big worlds to explore and plenty to do. Shooting goons, stealing cars, jumping off buildings; it's all good fun. But there are hundreds of games that come out each month that offer us different flavours. Want more comedy in games? It already exists if you know where to look. One game that came out this month had me in stitches. And it let me date a skeleton.

Discovering the weird and wonderful games floating outside the gravity of blockbusters is what this new column aims to do. Each month GameSpot will endorse a list of undiscovered and obscure titles that deserve your consideration. We start here, with five of the best released in September.

5. Panoramical

  • The Pitch: Lose yourself turning music into landscapes.
  • Platforms: PC and Mac
  • Website: panoramic.al

Scientists say we only experience a fraction of the world. Our eyes don't see infra-red or UV light, and our ears don't pick up ultrasonic sounds. What else are we missing out on? Panoramical suggests a lot. Or maybe that we don't appreciate the beauty of what we do get to see and hear.

"Imagine if paint had sounds and motion when applied to paper. That is Panoramical."

Panoramical injects you into soundscapes that patiently hum as you arrive through a warbling kaleidoscopic aperture. You have nine separate dials that each correlate to a collection of elements, both visual and auditory, letting you make changes huge and minuscule. Starting with a still horizon you may raise oceans and mountains to great crescendo. Flowers that trumpet can be grown into trees that shout. Hues can be altered and the timbre with it. Let a stream of stars drag or rush past and the tempo will match accordingly. Imagine if paint had sounds and motion when applied to paper. That is Panoramical.

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There's fun to be had in turning everything up to maximum for a sensory overload. But tempering and toying with display and effects is more artistically satisfying. Then you'll see that each of Panoramical's main scenes suggest familiar bucolic worlds. You can create foggy swamps with leaping creatures and fireflies. Or oceans fringed by cotton clouds and lit by an arcing moon. These tend to be the more sonorous and choral choices, whereas giving more alien compounds--such as rocky webbing or crystalline splinters--takes you to more vast and mysterious pieces. Whatever marriage of sight and sound you go with, it's all transitory, able to shift as easy as liquid. And so each arrangement has this precious quality that encourages you to sup on their pure sensations while it lasts.

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4. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

  • The Pitch: Fight with a friend, or a pet dog, in a frantic and fumbled battle with space aliens.
  • Platforms: Xbox One, PC, Linux, Mac
  • Website: loversinadangerousspacetime.com

The Death Star in Star Wars was deliberately made in an unremarkable color so that it would resemble a moon to onlookers. Nothing to see here, just a large rock that definitely doesn't house a super-weapon capable of destroying entire planets. But Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime isn't interested in keeping a low profile. The mini Death Star that you pilot in the game is colored a bubblegum pink. It has the subtlety of a disco ball at a flashlight party.

This ship is an emblem for everything the game is about: love. This works on a couple of levels. You literally embody love as a weaponized beacon sent out to face the evil forces of Anti-Love and rescue the space-bunnies they've kidnapped. But to be successful, there must also exist a love between you and your co-pilot. If you can, you should play the game sat alongside a friend, as it lends itself to hysterical fits of ecstasy in its best moments. If you're forced to do it alone then you'll be given an AI-controlled cat or dog to boss around. (Think of it as a mascot for your loneliness.) Either way, each function of your ship (driving, shooting, shielding) is tied to a separate console and then distributed across individual rooms. The pair of you must run between them frantically, popping up ladders, and jumping across small gaps while under attack. It's a micro-platformer inside a space shooter.

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The extra mobility requirements keep the energy levels high as you both race between destinations. With it comes the same rapport that keeps a busy kitchen alive, each cook bouncing off each other, knocking back the orders. The difference is that you have to deal with a cartoon cast of dive-bombing space beetles and cannon-faced robots. Upgrades let you wield massive ray guns and buzzsaws that you fling out on tethers. There are wilder options, too, such as turning the engine into a laser cannon. Playing around with these upgrades appeals to the overblown fantasies of youth in which everything is improved by increasing the numbers. But with such power it's easy to forget there's just the two of you to operate it all.

"It's a micro-platformer inside a space shooter."

Charge inside a planet housing a busy nest of jagged-toothed flies and your Swiss Army knife of a ship will be shown up for its ridiculousness. But more often than not you'll be high-fiving your way out of narrow escapes afforded to you by serendipity, such as being caught in the orbit of a nearby planet. It's a game that lets you see the universe through the bright colors of a child's eyes once again. It encourages you to dive into chaos, to embrace possibility, and to remember how fun it is to do so with a friend.

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3. Else Heart.Break()

  • The Pitch: Find your place, and maybe even love, in a world that's almost completely hackable.
  • Platforms: PC, Linux, Mac
  • Website: elseheartbreak.com

"Everyone is growing old and boring," says Pixie. We're on our way to a club. We always are. She and the rest of the young tech activists in Dorisburg stand out like neon-plated anachronisms. The clothes they wear appear to have been dipped in disco lights. Orange-framed sunglasses and pink headphones. They embody the electronic code and music they grew up with.

Now they live to party: smoking, drinking, raving into the morning. But the drizzly city island around them is made of cobblestones and cracked brick. It's an old European town founded on its mines and harbour; exporting goods to the rest of the world. One day, we dance carefree to a DJ in those mines, yards away from a hardhat zone, and I see the clash of the old and the young captured in a single image. Everything made on this island is sent off elsewhere, all except its youth. They seem eager to explore the world but there's something stopping them.

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Their cause is a cyberpunk one: Fighting against an austere authority by meddling with electronics. Yes, they're hackers, ones that have as many excited exclamation marks as they do awkward ellipsis in their speech. As new-guy-in-town Sebastian, curious and hopeless, you seem fated to join them. He arrives in Dorisburg to sell soda on the streets. He has to hustle but it's useless. No one is interested in buying, and any money he does make goes straight back to the company. The initial experience plays like The Sims without the hunger bars and interior decoration; stuck in a crappy job trying to make money without much of a purpose. But, if nothing else, Else Heart.Break() is about the fantasy of escape and seeing it come true. It should speak to anyone who has seen the job market disappoint their dreams.

Mind you, it's also a game about embracing failure. Friends will give you times and places to meet up. If you don't remember or find your own way then you'll miss the opportunity (if only temporarily). Relationships, after all, require dedication over long periods. So you grab maps, ask for directions, and write down passwords. Learning how the city and its people work is all preparation for the larger challenge. Dorisburg is a place where you can hack into anything, from a cup of coffee to an entire building, but it isn't without its restrictions. These exist only inside you. When hacking into an object you have to modify actual code, which means learning the correct syntax for a range of functions, and it can be intimidating. Help is at hand, either in the form of manuals found on floppy disks, or tutorials given by friends. Eventually, you'll gain some confidence, and this is when the magic happens.

"Else Heart.Break() is about the fantasy of escape and seeing it come true."

After being in the red for so long, I had one of the most immense feelings of satisfaction as I engineered a simple hack to get as much money as I liked. It's as though I had invented a cheat code; a literal life hack. Suddenly, the world had opened up. Now I had to learn how to hack everything, to chase new enigmas and new freedoms. It's tough, but Else Heart.Break() has enough drama to counterbalance its tests. Assigned missions see you sneaking into corporate workplaces, stalking the city's VIPs, and steadily working your way towards what you think might be love. Of course, you need a break every once in a while, but you needn't leave your computer. Guide Sebastian into one of Dorisburg's quiet cafe's and have him sit down with a smoke and a coffee, listening to dozy synth-pop. In these moments you may realize your own intense synthesis with the character. His story relies on you understanding how to code after all. And what you learn in Else Heart.Break() can be applied outside of it. That's if you can ever depart from the mysteries of this compelling virtual world.

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2. Assault Android Cactus

  • The Pitch: Gah! Hundreds of killer robots and you're running out of battery.
  • Platforms: PC, Linux, Mac
  • Website: assaultandroidcactus.com

As we increasingly rely on electronics to organize our lives we get closer to submitting ourselves to them entirely. Already there are those that immediately put everything on hold until they can find a charger for their smartphone or laptop. We can't face being offline or unavailable. This is why we can understand the tragedy of Assault Android Cactus, which is running out of battery at the worst time possible: when you're doing battle with killer robots.

"Arena shooters work best when they force you to perform risky maneuvers. Assault Android Cactus does this constantly and it's exhilarating."

As one of the game's diverse cast of android heroines, you spend your time back-pedalling around disco-like arenas, blasting a torrent of robots until one of them pops out a glowing green battery. Nothing else matters when your energy levels are low. You rush through the crowd uncaring for any hazard in the way. Taking damage is secondary to running out of battery as it's the only way to fail.

As you're battling against a fast-depleting power source the game becomes a manic rush against time. This urgency is the game's brilliance. Arena shooters work best when they force you to perform risky maneuvers that interrupts your measured effort at crowd control. Assault Android Cactus does this constantly and it's exhilarating. You cut lines through the mass of writhing metal to grab temporary power-ups and mechanical parts that gradually upgrade your weapon (resetting if you take too much damage).

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But it's the transforming arenas that really grab you by the pants. The floors will move and ripple with color, lasers and walls divide open space into segments, and doors close to trap you in pockets. One memorable stage has you on a flatbed railcar, rocking as it tilts around corners, intermittent red-hot lasers forcing you to take cover, crates rolling around and bursting open to reveal bigger foes. It's a rush to play and a welcome change of scenery. No matter the stage, you must keep on your toes at all times, dancing around hundreds of blazing bullets, or risk losing all momentum and delaying the arrival of the next precious battery.

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1. Undertale

  • The Pitch: Who wants to battle monsters when you can date them?
  • Platforms: PC and Mac
  • Website: undertale.com

There's something gloriously teenaged about Undertale. As if its creator Toby Fox read Edge magazine's 1994 review of Doom, which is remembered most for how it remarked "if only you could talk to these creatures, then perhaps you could try and make friends with them," and his response was along the lines of "yeah, what if you could kiss them too?"

But let's not be inaccurate here. This has nothing to do with Doom. Undertale is the result of someone turning Earthbound and Chrono Trigger into a joke book. This is an RPG that knows how to raise a smile and refuses to be predictable. It has a turn-based battle system but half of it plays more like a top-down shooter. During enemy attacks you have to maneuver a love heart inside a small box as projectiles are fired at you: skeletons throw bones, ghosts cry harmful tears, planes dive bomb you. Right at the start, it has a dig at hand-holding tutorials, literally having a mother figure hold your hand through anything that may harm you. But its biggest deviation is allowing you to let every single monster survive. You can befriend instead of battle.

"A tsundere airplane will get jealous if you attack other characters while battling it. The robot that wants to kill you decides to host a quiz and a cookery show beforehand, with you as the special guest."

For once, you can explore the "what if?" that Edge's writer proposed in that classic sentence. What if you could talk to the monsters? What would they say? An awful lot, it turns out, most of it endearingly funny. "I wish I had eight legs," says a spaghetti-loving skeleton called Papyrus, "so I could wear four pairs of hot pants." Papyrus is the best. But he's only one of the standout characters in Undertale's loveable cast. Some are shy and need a hug. A tsundere airplane will get jealous if you attack other characters while battling it. The robot that wants to kill you decides to host a quiz and a cookery show beforehand, with you as the special guest. As to Papyrus, he fails spectacularly in his efforts to capture a human by dating the single one he does find.

You play as this human, who has fallen into an underground realm of monsters, and must journey through to the other side to escape. You pass by ruins, laboratories, castles, and towns, each with their own memorable and often laugh-out-loud encounters. One snowy town is guarded by small dogs that sit in huge humanoid suits of armor far too big for them. You can deal with them in typical RPG fashion by choosing 'Fight' in the battle menu. But the more entertaining option is making a snowball for them to fetch so that they drop all hostility and can be spared. They'll turn up later belching inside a pub. Part of the delight is exploring how to make each of the monsters your friend. For some, you need to flirt to soften them up, while others may require you to sing, tell jokes, or console.

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Undertale's mission throughout is to grab the weary norms of the RPG by the pants, and then twist them until they go light-headed. Sure, it has multiple endings to discover, but you'll want to replay for more than the sake of trading a pacifist run for a genocidal one, or vice versa. Upon playing its demo two years ago, being drawn in by how it was able to surprise and humor me, even make me feel guilty, I worried it wouldn't hold out for an entire six hours. But it does. Some jokes still make me laugh upon thinking about them. Characters exist in my head as if people I've actually met. It's an unexpected multiplex of tones and emotions, too: disturbing, silly, heart-warming. But mostly it's funny. Really, genuinely, properly funny.

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