Over the past few years, the gaming industry has continually gained more and more steam. With the release of the PS4 and the Xbox One, games are more immersive, dynamic, and engrossing than ever. Industry leaders are dominating our entertainment venues with stories and images that snatch up attention spans, and continue to keep us glued to screens around the world. Kudos to them for my countless sleepless nights and lost hours on these kingpin titles.

Along with these advances, smaller developers are emerging with an incredible new series of games that, despite their lower budgets or smaller crews, they are still unleashing incredible images that, in my opinion, are creating a sub-niche in the gaming world that I hope will continue to grow. What follows here, then, is a selection of some of the most stunning and enjoyable titles in the past few years that, despite overwhelming numbers of “bigger” titles, still manage to draw us in for many hours of non-mainstream enjoyment.

SHANK

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It stands to reason that, given my namesake, this game would end up on the list. Naming aside, Shank was designed at its core to be an over-the-top, almost Quentin Tarantino animated movie. A story of mob murder and revenge, the game features comic-style animation and graphics and feeds upon one’s inner desire for violence. Guns are obviously part of a game like this, along with sharpened prison implements, and furthermore, weapons that wouldn’t make the approval list of the military’s Law of Armed Conflict, such as chainsaws. Featuring both a single-player campaign in which Shank seeks revenge, along with a Co-operative prequel in which the story is built up between Shank, and his partner Falcone.

Originally released in 2010 across multiple platforms, the game managed to garner a largely positive following, criticisms aside. Klei Entertainment, the games developer, has gone on to create its share of high-quality, entertaining titles over many years. Shank 2, obviously a sequel, continues the story with the outbreak of war in Shank’s homeland, introducing more new characters and the return of some old enemies.

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BASTION

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Supergiant Games took the original concept of isometric gaming and turned the idea on its head from the get-go with this title. While games like Diablo and Torchlight fail to ever show the player a sky, Bastion, with a similar camera, managed to overcome this obstacle by creating the world under the players feet. This functioned, secondly, as a way to show the player where they’d been already, as already-constructed locations would only exist as the player had walked through that area already.

These new concepts rocketed Bastion and it’s post-apocalypse-ish story to the forefront of the small developer gaming industry, netting awards from IGN, Spike, Game Informer, and the like.

With award-winning voice acting, “let me tell you a story” style plot, and a game world that literally builds itself as you play, Bastion broke ground in ways previous titles could have only dreamed of. It was published in 2011 by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

DUST: AN ELYSIAN TAIL

I remember seeing this game’s original trailer years ago, on a quiet, unassuming website where designer Dean Dodrill had uploaded information regarding his upcoming XNA-based “Dream. Build. Play” winner. Based entirely in an anthropomorphic-character-filled world called Falana. Running with the age-old idea of “hero with amnesia,” Dust, the protagonist, is quickly thrust into a world of intrigue, unique characters, humor, and a powerful, Devil-May-Cry-esque combat system that allows for unbelievably impressive combos.

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My original desire to play this game arose due to the art and visual style employed. Presented more as a world one might imagine from a painting, the imagery, animation style, and characters felt like a Disney-inspired game that managed to appeal to not only kids, but adult audiences as well. Dodrill did the entirety of the development, design, and programming on his own. Voice acting, the soundtrack, and a few snippets of the story were contributed to by outside sources. Drawing inspiration from some of his favorite titles such as Metroid and Golden Axe, Dean’s solo piece was originally published by Microsoft in 2012.

MARK OF THE NINJA

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Games like Metal Gear and Splinter Cell have defined the stealth genre for many years now, and have nearly become a staple in most gaming libraries, especially Metal Gear Solid 5 and Splinter Cell: Blacklist. But Klei Entertainment, responsible for Torchlight 2 and Don’t Starve, one-upped the artistic style of stealth with Mark of the Ninja. Released in 2012, the cel-shaded style, combined with multiple routes through the game and a monstrous presentation of the game’s unnamed hero, a ninja of the Hisomu ninja clan.

The hero, who slowly gains more and more tattoos during the course of the game, is initially told that his ink is a mark of considerable power. However, in exchange for this power, markings will ultimately drive him insane.

Consisting of RPG-style elements, the player is able to upgrade the ninja through three different trees of skills. Techniques, which function as passives like new executions and the like, Distraction items like smoke bombs or darts for extinguishing lights, and finally Attack items for direct conflict such as poison darts.

Another fun addition is the concept of terrorizing, where a player, under the right circumstances, can strike fear into an enemy, causing them to make foolish mistakes, shoot at shadows, or generally cause chaos, allowing the ninja to take advantage of these situations in a number of ways. Mark of the ninja’s elements of style, combat, and fear make it a more mature title, but definitely one that will exist in my library for quite some time.

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ORI AND THE BLIND FOREST

Having been into video games for the better part of thirty-five years, I’ve seen many impressive titles, beautiful CGI, and generally well-executed gameplay. Ori and the Blind Forest is a crowning achievement in many respects, with tight, varied controls, memorable, emotion-invoking characters, a compelling story told through action and the occasional dialogue.

Developed by Moon Studios, a headquarter-less organization with staff around the globe, Ori tells the story of a tiny “guardian spirit” on a mission to restore what amounts to his homeland. 

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Smacking of Disney’s character Stitch, Ori is an instantly lovable character with an arsenal of useful skills to overcome the challenges across the game.

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Accompanied by Sein, a combative little spirit that futher enhances Ori’s abilities and guides him on his quest, Ori sets off from a heart-wrenching beginning in order to bring new life the forest he’s spent his entire life in. Receiving critical acclaim from both players and critics alike, Ori propelled Moon Studios to almost immediate success, with the game turning cost on its head within the first week of sales. 

The game has gone on to become a multiple award winner, and made sales during the 2015 holiday season, coming with other titles in an Xbox One bundle.

There you have it, kids! All games are art, and the creativity is endless. Some games, though, break the mould and truly pop as works of art, and I hope you’ll give all of these a try!

–Jimmy

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