A friend of mine was asking about game recommendations. It seems most of the games I've been playing have been puzzle games and rogue-likes.
First, you should subscribe to the Humble Bundle mailing list. They're between bundles at the moment, but every several weeks, they release a pay-what-you-want bundle of indie games! It's a great way to try stuff out without paying much. (And you can go back and give tips for the games you liked most.) There's also Indie Royale, but their bundles tend not to be as strong, and I don't always get them.
FEZ (Xbox Live Arcade)
The same sense of wonder and exploration as the original Legend of Zelda, but with puzzles instead of monsters to defeat. :) Easily my favorite game of last year. The basic premise is that you're playing a 2D platformer, but what you see is actually an isometric projection of a 3D world, so that two platforms may be far apart now, but once you "rotate" the world, they might be close together! Might be easier to just watch the trailer.
What's great is that this is a neat gimmick, but it's only scratching the surface. There are tons of hints at deeper puzzles, puzzles that actually require taking notes with paper and pencil to solve! When you think you've "beat the game", you've only finished half of it. :)
Best puzzle game since Portal and Braid.
It's being ported to other platforms, if you don't have an Xbox.
VVVVVV (Windows, Mac, Linux)
I love this side-scrolling puzzle game. The puzzles often take very precise timing, but there are tons of checkpoints, so you almost never feel frustrated.* Really well-designed, and every tough puzzles makes you feel satisfied when you finally beat it. The basic gimmick is that you can't jump; instead, you can flip gravity, upon which you start falling the other way (but you can move left and right as you fall).
*With the particularly notable exception of one notoriously ridiculously difficult optional portion that took me over 2 hour and hundreds of lives to beat. You only need to do it if you're going for 100% completion, and you'll easily burn more lives there than in the rest of the game combined, but somehow, everyone who's beaten it seems to think it's the best part of the game... even though that's likely cognitive dissonance at work. :)
But yeah, even if that part is not for you, the rest of the game is very fair and very fun.
Papo & Yo (PlayStation Network)
This Ars Technica review is what got me to play it. It's a puzzle game set in the Brazilian favelas that uses magical realism to explore growing up with an alcoholic father. The symbolism can be heavy-handed, but it's at the same time quite charming.
And the frogs! They are so adorable! Except... Well, you'll see!
Machinarium (Windows, Mac, Linux, iPad, Android)
(Demo on the site)
Pretty short traditional point-and-click adventure. I ended up looking up hints on a progressive hint system a couple of times because I just didn't know where to click, which is a problem with games like this, but it's very cute, and I liked its sense of humor.
(Probably playable on a tablet, but it's too small for a phone screen. I tried it on a phone, and then played on my computer instead.)
SpaceChem (Steam: Windows, Mac, Linux)
To be honest, I played this for a while, found it quite difficult, and put it aside. I'll probably get back to it, but be warned that this is not a casual game. Despite the name, it's more programming than chemistry. A couple of molecules are emitted, and you have to create a production line that combines them in just the right way and so forth to form a different set of molecules. Very similar to some puzzle games I've played where you have to assemble robots or whatnot. Great game if you want to think a lot. :)
Okay now I'm stretching the definition of puzzle games a bit, but this is the pinnacle of stealth games. Brilliantly-designed stealth mechanics that let you visualize sounds and sight-lines. It shows expanding rings for footsteps for instance, so you can "hear" enemies, and you can tell when the enemies can hear you. Great animation, well-paced, and replayability in that you can try out different play-styles: go in brawling, sneak around for stealth kills, or even get bonus points for a no-kill run!
Recently, as games have gotten more expensive to make, they've also gotten easier. You can typically save any time you want, and you can progress in the game just by grinding for experience. The developers want everyone to be able to see the ending that they spent all that effort writing!
This has created a backlash of interest in rogue-like games, most notably differentiated by having perma-death. When you die in these games, you lose everything and have to start all over again, making you play much more deliberately and thoughtfully. On the flipside, they have procedurally randomized levels. You encounter different items and situations early on that change the way you have to play each game, meaning no two play-throughs are exactly alike, so you don't end up repeating yourself when you start over.
It occurred to me that the appeal (and .. dis-appeal) of these games is that they are focused not on leveling up your character, but on leveling up yourself. You die often and have to start over from the beginning often, but each time you typically learn something and play better the next time.
That said, for the same reason, these games take effort and focus to play, aren't as casual, and can be frustrating.
Here are three rogue-like games of wildly different genres:
You have a space ship, and it has various systems like oxygen, weapons, door controls... and you go from system to system fighting other spaceships. The fighting is like a tactical game: You want to target their shields and weapons, for instance, and you can upgrade your ship with what you scavenge after battles.
There are some interesting mechanics, like if part of your ship is on fire, you can open the right doors to vent it to space, which snuffs out the fire. If the enemy boards your ship, you can also try to suffocate them, then move your crew to the med bay so you can heal while you fight, etc.
As is often the case in these games, you never have enough money to upgrade everything you need, so resource allocation is a huge part of the game. And then just when you think things are going okay, one bad engagement can mean half your ship is on fire, and your engines are disabled, so you can't even spool up your FTL to escape... But then the next playthrough will be different! :)
It gets more fun the more you understand, and I recommend reading some tips online after you get the basic feel for it, but it's still damn frickin' hard. D=
Update: After initially writing this, I managed to beat it on "Easy", but that was still really stressful, and I think I'd need a lot of luck to be "Normal"... Tellingly, there is no "Hard".
Indiana Jones-inspired side-view adventure game with permadeath (and a time limit in that if you take too long, a ghost comes after you). You really have to learn how to do things like look out for dart-shooting things and drop a rock before you rappel down, etc. Some people swear by this game, but I only played a few times and found it a bit frustrating.
This is a rogue-like version of the dungeon levels in the original Legend of Zelda. Every playthrough is different because of what items you get, and of course the dungeons are randomized, but the basic gameplay is very similar to the Legend of Zelda.
The annoying thing about the game is that most of the items have obtuse names that reveal nothing about what they do, so most people I know who've played it constantly alt-tab away to the wiki to see what stuff actually does. :\ Supposedly by design, I guess, but still stupid. Surprisingly fun game despite this, though.
I should also note that the art style and theme are rather grotesque and potentially offensive, so keep that in mind!
If Grand Theft Auto were made for the NES, and it were chock-full of video game and pop culture parody references, it would be this game.
Big Budget Games
Uncharted 2 and 3 (PS3 retail)
These games give you the feeling of being part of an action-adventure movie. Indiana Jones come to life. I could do without some of the more drawn-out gunfights, since other games have done that better, but I really like the highly-scripted moments. They do a great job of integrating scenes where you run for cover, jump at the last minute, almost miss the jump, and your buddy catches you by the arm. Another great moment is a scene where you jump from horse to truck and back again. :) The only time it fails is when a section is too hard, you end up repeating the same few moves over and over, which breaks the immersion.
Particularly notable is the quality of the voice acting and animation. They accomplished this by recording all the dialogue on-set with the actors in their motion-capture suits. They put physical blocks where cars and tables and whatnot would be, so the actors have something to play against, and so the dialogue can flow smoothly with the grunts and whatnot.
Uncharted 1 felt kinda slow in comparison to its sequels.. not as cinematic, and no stealth mechanic, so it felt a lot more grindy. If you go back to these now, I'd recommend just sticking to 2 and 3.
(I also only briefly tried out the multiplayer, but as I said the gunfights are not really the strong point of this series, so I think most of the appeal is in the single player campaign.)
Halo 4 (Xbox 360 retail)
I feel like anyone who likes Halo probably has this, and anyone who doesn't have this probably doesn't like Halo, so I'm not sure if there's a point in reviewing it. :P They added loadouts, which scared me, since I liked that Halo games are fair, unlike Call of Duty, but it turns out you can unlock most of the useful stuff pretty quickly. Otherwise, the changes to the multiplayer game are mostly positive. The single-player campaign is meh, but I think the focus of Halo has always been on the multiplayer anyway.
StarCraft 2 (Windows, Mac)
This is the game I play the most these days. Real-time strategy game with very well-balanced design. It has a pretty steep learning curve, but I love the combination of thinking and reflexes that it requires. It's actually a spectator sport in Korea, and I've been to a Major League Gaming StarCraft tournament just to watch other people play. :) The expansion pack, Heart of the Swarm, is due out in less than 2 months! :)