Mobile gaming is in an ugly spot, so a popular narrative goes, and that’s why Apple tried to tidy up the situation with its curated Apple Arcade subscription service. And we’re big fans of Apple Arcade! You should totally check out our list of the service’s best games once you’re done here.
It’s a flawed narrative, though. Look beyond the chaff of flavor-of-the-moment, ad-riddled games and microtransaction-heavy “freemium” titles, and you’ll find games that are every bit as good as what you’ll see on Apple Arcade. Some of them are even better. And this list doesn’t even count many of the fun freemium games that dropped in 2019, which include Nintendo’s Mario Kart Tour and Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls: Blades. You should check them out, too, but I find they’re a little too eager to dig into your pocketbooks for this list.
Ordia plays a lot like Angry Birds: Pull back on your avatar with your finger, and it fires off in the direction you aimed in. But that’s about where the similarities end. Here you’re a gloopy eye-like blob ascending through the primordial ooze, so you do your platforming vertically rather than horizontally. Along the way, you plop over to other gloopy blobs for support and calculate catapults over spikes, until at last you break through the surface at the end of the stage—and, perhaps, to the next stage of evolution.
It’s a simple concept and not particularly original. Ordia’s excellence, though, lies in how well it executes this concept across three worlds and 30 challenging levels. It’s unburdened by in-app purchases, and it’s lovely in sight and sound every slimy leap of the way.
Hyper Light Drifter ($4.99)
Hyper Light Drifter is an action RPG that’s only three years old, although its pixel art style makes it look like a relic from my childhood. It’s almost as timeless as those digital ’80s adventures, and it combines artful minimalist storytelling about a “drifter” suffering from a mysterious illness with gameplay that was pulled straight from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
It’s also famously intense, but the touch controls translate well (aside from some annoyances such as having to reach too far to trigger health boosts). I highly recommend playing it with a controller, though.
Dead Cells ($8.99)
The title Dead Cells refers to the hero of Motion Twin’s game, who’s basically a bundle of sentient cells that slithers into the bodies of decapitated prisoners in their…cells. Wordplay is fun, y’all! And so is Dead Cells, which, like Castlevania, is a 2D game that relies on exploring and backtracking through various levels. The key difference is that these levels randomly generate each time you go through.
And you’ll be going through it a lot. Dead Cells is a hard game, not least because it features a permadeath mechanic that makes you start from the beginning every time you die. Fortunately, you can keep the boosts you acquire and unlock better weapons—and so with every attempt, Dead Cells gets a tad easier. It’s a good thing it supports controllers, though, as I found the touchscreen controls a little too fiddly for my liking.
Sky: Children of the Light (Free)
Sky: Children of the Light is a visually striking game about empathy, cooperation with other players, and lightweight puzzle solving that’s framed as a tale about restoring spirits to their rightful place among the constellations. As with developer Thatgamecompany’s previous games Flower and Journey, its appeal springs from the intensity of emotions you feel while playing rather than competition or combat prowess. I initially worried the in-app purchases would smother the intensity of that experience, but happily they’re benign.
It’s short and simple, and you can even set up the controls to play with one finger if preferred. Earlier this year I lamented that it didn’t launch with controller support, but luckily that support finally came in September.
Call of Duty: Mobile (Free)
Call of Duty is in a good place lately. In August, the new Modern Warfare wowed critics on consoles, and in October, Call of Duty: Mobile emerged as what may be the best shooter on a smartphone ever.
It’s not just a good phone shooter: It feels like Call of Duty. That especially comes through in the maps and the five-versus-five team deathmatch and domination modes, but you’ll also feel it the 100-player battle royale that resembles Modern Warfare’s Blackout map. You can play with either touch controls or a gamepad.
It’s free to play, so—as you should expect—you’ll find some microtransactions. They’re benign as these things go, though, and you could play almost everything without dropping a cent. The catch? You’ll be reminded at almost every turn that you could be dropping a few bucks in the store. Judging from Call of Duty: Mobile’s standing on the App Store charts, plenty of players are feeling that call.
Star Traders: Frontiers ($3.99)
Star Traders: Frontiers’ many influences suggest it should be little more than a forgettable satellite around the worlds of Star Trek, Mass Effect, and even Firefly, but it manages to exert a substantial gravitational tug of its own. The Trese Brothers originally released it for PC last year, but its appealing mix of strategy and roleplaying makes a fine match for mobile. And while there’s a lot to do here, it rarely feels overcomplicated.
Frontiers’ star shines brightly in part because of its personality. Other spacefaring games lean too heavily on familiar sci-fi tropes, but Frontiers presents a galaxy where space pirates conduct trade or hobnob with fellow corsairs while dressed like gunslingers or 18th-century rajahs. Nor is this individualization merely for show, as each crew member plays a vital role in combat missions and planetary exploration. Free of strict devotion to existing properties, Frontiers is able to go places where few other mobile space sims have gone before.
The Gardens Between ($4.99)
I spend way too much time wondering what I could have done differently with my life, and that’s partly why I’m so drawn to The Gardens Between. This artful puzzler lets us see what big differences small changes can make.
With swipes of your finger, you nudge time backwards and forwards around two friends, letting them subtly alter their actions so they can ascend the peaks of small islands made from the detritus of their memories. And therein lies another theme: This is just as much a game about learning how to move on—both from possessions and people.
It’s not always adept at using the gameplay to communicate its messages. Some elements seem to exist only for the sake of a good puzzle. Even so, it succeeds at leaving an emotional impact, chiefly on the strength of the animations of its human heroes and the haunting notes of its soundtrack. Like a good poem, it’s short and powerful. (Make sure you play it on iOS, though, as the Mac version is wildly overpriced.)
Telling Lies ($6.99)
Telling Lies is the kind of game that’ll make you want to stick a spot of electrical tape over your device’s camera. You play as an NSA agent, and you’re tasked with piecing together the story behind a traumatic event by watching and listening to secretly recorded one-sided video chats from a large cast of characters. Your job is to pull the most important clues from what you hear, so you’ll need to pay attention to relevant references in this chatter. This isn’t always easy, though, as you’ll quickly realize some of these chumps are shameless liars.
Much like developer Sam Barlow’s earlier Her Story, Telling Lies’ story unfolds almost entirely through videos, although playthroughs can change dramatically because you’ll have to choose which files to sift through. And here’s something that’s not a lie: The acting is phenomenal, and it’s one of the best detective games on the App Store.
Forgotton Anne (Free to try, $9.99 to unlock)
First off, “Forgotton” is not a typo, and that’s relatively low on the weirdness scale in this stunning narrative-driven platformer. Secondly, if you’ve ever wished for a game set in the world of a Studio Ghibli film, Forgotton Anne is probably about as close as you’re going to get.
Anne herself is an Enforcer (a cop of sorts), and she’s one of only two humans living in a realm where all forgotten things end up when they’re lost. The citizens of this place consist of everything from talking guns to bartending refrigerators, and Anne leaps among them with some occasionally awkward platforming.
Good thing, then, that telling a good story is always the chief focus here. Anne can’t die, and she doesn’t even have a health bar. Even so, you’ll find few other games on the iOS App Store with so much heart.
Gwent: The Witcher Card Game (Free)
If you’re enjoying Henry Cavill’s new Witcher TV series on Netflix and you’re seeking a tie-in, it’s a great time to check out Gwent. It’s a standalone version of a collectible card game that was designed for 2015’s The Witcher 3: the Wild Hunt (one of the most acclaimed roleplaying games of all time), and much like Hearthstone before it, it’s arguably better suited for devices like the iPad than to its original home on the PC.
Fair warning: It’s unconventional as card games go, and I actually avoided it while playing The Witcher 3 because I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Fortunately, it’s a little easier to pick up on iOS, and there’s a thriving community of active players when you’re ready to play against someone other than the AI. It’s also getting great support from the devs, as a new, popular expansion dropped only a couple of weeks ago.
Rolando: Royal Edition ($2.99)
Nostalgia frankly isn’t often justified, as old games and movies usually aren’t as good as we remember them. But Rolando: Royal Edition is an exception. This popular, colorful 2008 game vanished from the App Store for a few years in the wake of architecture changes to iOS, but it’s still wonderful enough to justify the near-perfect score we gave it in our original review.
It’s all about using the iPhone’s tilt controls to roll ball-like characters through puzzles with springboards, passages, and other elements before you can advance to the next level. It’s a nice callback to the days when tilt controls were all the range, and Rolando is a reminder that few games since have used them so effectively. Happily, it’s released exactly the way it was—which means it also isn’t burdened with microtransactions.