PCs have an incredible variety of games available to them, but without a discrete graphics card from NVIDIA or ATI, those options are severely curtailed. But there are still plenty of games worth playing, even if you restrict your selections to those that can be played on low-power laptops or budget machines.
In no particular order, here are our picks for the best of the year that can be played on low-power budget PCs and laptops. If you want even more options, check out our picks for 2018 as well.
The SteamWorld series is amazingly diverse in terms of genre, and the latest entry takes its simple, focused approach to the world of classic RPGs. SteamWorld Quest mixes turn-based RPG combat with absolutely stunning 2D steampunk art—the kind that will make you glad you upgraded to a 4K screen on your laptop. Mechanized battles incorporate an interesting deck-building element for spells and power-ups, but this isn’t a card game, it’s just an intuitive way to customize your fighters. It’ll likely feel a bit basic to RPG veterans, but SteamWorld Quest is still worth a try for its excellent and tight presentation.
Wargroove is a strategy game from the land before real-time. Unabashedly lifting grid-based strategy elements from classics like Fire Emblem and Shining Force, the game sets its turn-based action in a pixelated fantasy land that’s bright and cheerful. But don’t let its sunny exterior fool you: underneath those bouncing sprites and gorgeous 2D animation is a punishingly difficult tactical experience. If you’re not in the mood to go through the game’s fantasy story campaign, a less structured arcade mode lets you jump right into battle.
A love letter to 16-bit platforming games, Horace also has a lot to say about classic sci-fi and games and the nature of AI and old TV shows…okay, it’s just a lot in terms of story. Underneath the surprisingly deep narrative, it’s a collection of sprawling 2D levels in the hyper-difficult vein of Super Meat Boy, and occasional mini-games based on recognizable arcade classics. The juxtaposition of a touching, funny story with the kind of platforming difficulty you’d expect from something that makes nodding references to Dark Souls is rich and interesting. Still, you might want to skip it if you’re easily frustrated.
Untitled Goose Game
Untitled Goose Game, in which you are a goose, and your only purpose in life is to make the lives of provincial humans miserable, was inescapable on social media this year. But don’t let the meme factor turn you off: this simple little un-title, mixing some very basic puzzle and stealth elements, is worth your time for its charm alone. The pastel-shaded residents of the English village are bursting with personality, and the game’s dynamic piano soundtrack gives a farcical quality to your avian antics. There’s not a ton of replay value, but figuring out the most effective and entertaining way to mess with the villagers is undeniably entertaining.
Streets of Rogue
With a name like “Streets of Rogue,” you might expect this game to be a randomly-generated beat-em-up. And it is. But it’s also a top-down shooter, sandbox game, creation engine, action-RPG, multiplayer brawler, and just generally insane gaming experience. The game’s open-ended nature and amazingly reactive world are hidden behind the pixelated presentation—it’s got that Minecraft quality of simple visuals covering an insane amount of depth. If you want a game that’s still revealing surprising secrets months down the line, this is it. Just be prepared to bookmark the wiki.
Sayonara Wild Hearts
Evoking the simple, eye-popping elements of old on-rails games like Rez, Sayonara Wild Hearts is best described as a [expletive]ing trip. In slightly more useful terms, it’s a bubblegum pop album that you play as well as listen to. The neon-soaked visuals and saccharine soundtrack will engage your senses while simple timing-based gameplay keeps things casual. This is an excellent game to play if you’re looking to unwind without having to think too hard because its disjointed and free-flowing visual design almost intentionally discourages it. Older PCs might chug a bit on the simple 3D graphics, but Intel laptops from 2017 or newer are supported.
On the other end of the spectrum, Disco Elysium is kind of like a classic detective noir adventure game, blended with an incredibly deep RPG and hidden inside a freshman philosophy course. If that sounds incomprehensible, you’re on the right track. Ostensibly a whodunnit murder mystery, the approach that this game takes to exploring its characters and story through mile-deep RPG elements is wonderfully innovative. Read a review or two before you buy this one because Disco Elysium is most certainly not for everyone. But those who can stomach its rich narrative and innovative approach to gameplay will dig it. The 3D visuals might be a bit tough on older PCs, but its gameplay doesn’t demand precision timing or reflexes, so it’s playable on almost anything.
If Wargroove above seems like the kind of strategy game that’s just too casual, then Imperator: Rome is what you crave. This deep dive into the rise of a historically-accurate Roman Empire is insanely detailed and granular, asking the player to manage resources, geography, tactics, and politics as you conquer the ancient world. You can play with hundreds of historical nations and tribes across BC Europe, Asia, and Africa. The huge, accurate map is a particular highlight, though the mouse and keyboard interface and barebones tutorial won’t be friendly even for veteran strategy players. Imperator Rome had a rough launch earlier this year but has since seen some big improvements that make it a must-play for hardcore strategy fans.
For players who are so over innovative storytelling experiences and deep character progression, there’s Ion Fury. That might sound dismissive, but it’s not: Ion Fury is a return to the relentless, ridiculous, pulse-pounding first-person shooters of the 90s. It plays like Shadow Warrior and Duke Nukem 3D and looks like them too because it’s made in a modified version of the classic Build engine. That means that in addition to hyper-fast movement and an array of weapons that would make Doom Guy proud, its low-intensity graphics could probably run on a calculator watch. Despite the older engine, the sci-fi story is fleshed out with rich, cheesy voice acting.
John Wick Hex
Licensed games are kind of hit-or-miss, and much more often the former than the latter. John Wick Hex, appropriately, bucks the trend. You might expect it to be a relentless first-person shooter, but in fact, it’s a top-down, turn-based isometric game. You guide the titular Mister Wick through levels full of bad guys, methodically murdering them with patience and precision, targeting individual body parts with guns and hand-to-hand combat. Playing back the levels in full speed, a la Superhot, makes John look like the unstoppable badass that he is. The combined result is that you feel like the world’s most skilled assassin playing a psychotic game of checkers. It’s a treat for any fan of the action films, but also a solid strategy-combat game in its own right.
Honorable Mention: Hearthstone Battlegrounds
Blizzard’s somewhat simplified free-to-play card game isn’t new by any means, but this year it launched a new mode loosely inspired by the popular “auto chess” genre. And it’s good! Much better than I ever imagined that a turn-based card game shoved into an 8-player free-for-all could be. I love the way that it focuses on building up gigantic, overpowered creatures, but that the right counter can instantly undo even the most muscled-up team. Best of all, it doesn’t require years of investment in the somewhat lopsided economy of Hearthstone to be competitive. Give it a try if you’re looking for something with an intriguing mix of strategy and randomness.