While console gaming remains ever popular, more than a billion folks enjoy PC gaming because it provides more processing power and a richer variety of games. Mammoth titles such as Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds landed on PC first, along with a host of strange and lovely indie darlings.
Not only that, but a multitude of strategy and multiplayer games benefit from the tried-and-tested combo of a mouse and keyboard. PC gaming is an exciting place: the standard in eSports and Twitch broadcasting, it’s also a hotbed of gorgeous independent gems that are not available on consoles.
You don’t even need a state-of-the-art gaming computer to play amazing PC games. Many popular titles feature rolled-back versions that play on older computers, and plenty of popular PC games aren’t punishing to run in their original form. With free digital games platforms like Steam and GOG, it’s an easy and sometimes a canny way to try out a wealth of PC games – these platforms host huge sales and discounts on the regular.
To help you decide what PC games to get stuck into, we’ve tested and put together a range that are popular with both gaming audiences and critics. To make the list, games had to be fun, cover a variety of distinct solo or multiplayer experiences and, above all, be beautifully crafted.
Included among this year’s greatest computer games are captivating story-based RPGs like Disco Elysium, which go beyond the average fantasy roleplaying game tropes to provide something much weirder, and co-op games like Phasmophobia, which double up as a super-fun social experience. Space betrayal game Among Us is so popular that even members of the US congress have played it.
Whatever your tastes, we’ve tested a veritable dragon’s hoard of titles to help you find a game you’ll like, whatever your tastes. So join us on a cruise through abyssal skies, neon-lit towers, Styxian waters and the wastes of hell itself, as we explore what PC games to play in 2021.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
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One of the biggest hits of 2020, Hades is a fast-paced action romp steeped in the humour and pathos of Greek mythology. You play as the prince of the underworld, looking to break out of your home. Wielding an array of mythical weapons, such as an eternal spear, combined with god-like powers, you’ll see how far you can survive, learning more of the story as you carry on. Your ultimate aim? Dethroning a god.
You’ll die and die again, but come back to the Styx, this time more powerful and with secret treasures. Along with the very colourful, mind-bending battles, you’ll also interact with the surrounding area itself, watching numerous stories unfold. As well as lurid, intense action, Hades won us over with its hilarious characters and capricious Greek gods. You’re essentially part of one big dysfunctional family within whose problems you get ensnared on your journey out of the underworld.
You’ll fight off terrifying gods too, unleashing wild powers as you go, getting stronger each time. The hand-painted world of Hades is a sight to behold, and the voice acting and a high-octane soundtrack will keep you fully immersed in this mythical action bonanza.
Buy now £19.49, Steam
One of the finest videogame RPGs you can play right now, in Disco Elysium you step into the grizzled gumshoes of a detective who, as well as wrangling their own flaws, filth and internal voices, is nursing a gruelling hangover. You can’t remember anything and have to build yourself back from scratch.
You’ll solve nasty murders, cut a swathe across a bleak, sleazy city block and make difficult decisions. Full of equal parts lurid weirdness and dark comedy, Disco Elysium also has one of the most interesting character skill trees out there, as each ability usually comes with a drawback, whether that’s paranoia, addiction or creepy voices.
Unlike other examples of its genre, combat is a minor part of the game. While you can start a fight, you can also lie, bribe or charm your way out of scrapes. For the most part, you’ll be making narrative choices and discovering your identity. We were especially amazed at the depth of the story and wayward decisions in Disco Elysium, all undercut by stellar writing and pacing. You’ll spend your time unravelling a chaotic world that is as emotionally resonant as it is thrilling.
Buy now £34.99, Steam
A co-op horror game that has truly possessed the games streaming space, Phasmophobia is just as fun to play as it is to watch. Essentially, you and up to three other friends (although you can go solo too) play as paranormal investigators, wielding ghost-hunting equipment in a bid to gather evidence of phantoms. Unlike in Ghostbusters, you don’t have weapons – you’re just there to investigate, not blast. Mostly, you’ll use a torch, a box that tracks ghosts and a thermometer. Later you might chat to the ghosts using the likes of a “Spirit Box”, or, if you’re unlucky, you might even speak with them directly through voice chat – always a disturbing experience. The ghosts can hear everything, after all.
You chase these ghosts through dark buildings and attempt to piece together what type of phantasmal menace you’re dealing with from the ethereal writings and temperature drops. The ghosts start out fairly non-threatening but amp up their murderous efforts as the game goes on. And, when you die – you will, many times – you’re doomed to watch your former companions and the ghost itself.
Phasmophobia is utterly terrifying, with its flickering shadows, voice-chat screaming and coordinated smudge-stick lighting. Things get tense. Be warned that Phasmophobia is still in “Early Access” and so has some of the jank associated with an early release, but is worth a look if talking to ghosts and traipsing through haunted houses is your deal, or you’re looking for some adrenaline-fuelled fun with friends.
Buy now £10.99, Steam
The latest installment in the legendary Civilization series, this epic empire-building game is a strategy classic. Based on complex board game mechanics, Civilization allows a level of in-depth management that is utterly enthralling. We’ve certainly sunk plenty of hours into the series over the last decade.
You select yourself a civilisation, like the Germans or the Mayans, and set about building. As well as fighting off other civilisations on land and sea, you’ll also need to place buildings, raise armies, gather resources and build wonders. With the latest instalment, there are also new ways to manage your culture, politics and the cities themselves. And, as the game is known for, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to trade and wage war with a number of prominent historical leaders, from Gandhi to Genghis Khan. You’ll move through a technology tree that takes you from the likes of animal husbandry to a giant death robot.
There’s a range of victory types you can work towards, whether that’s conquering everyone or establishing your own colony on Mars. There is an immense satisfaction to be had from raising a small tribe into a world-dominating power, and watching your cities rise among a gorgeous, colourful map.
Buy now £49.99, Steam
Sunless Skies is an open-world RPG in which you sail a steam train through dark and magical skies in an alternate universe overseen by a vast mechanical sun, of course.
Here, Queen Victoria has become eternal and Blighty has moved into the skies. You’ll build up your engine and crew, adding new modifications and colourful characters alike, while working through exquisite gothic adventures that are also delightfully British. You’ll enjoy cups of tea and royal crockery while also blasting giant bats and smuggling souls. You’ll check out the pagan reaches of the forest, and a strange, misty, tentacled place that is as much old-school British seaside as it is unknowable horror.
Meanwhile, there’s every chance that you’ll succumb to starvation, cannibalism or fall between the claws of one of the many, many horrors that roam The Reach. Once you’re done with the starting region, there’ll be others to explore, each with unique monsters and brand new locations, including Old Albion, where the dead live.
Whether you want to earn riches, make your name among the stars or discover the cursed secrets lurking behind them, Sunless Skies is a fun mix of story, exploration, action and RPG character building. You can even put the “perma-death” setting on, meaning that any time your captain dies you’ll have to start again. We’ve sunk over fifty hours into it, and there’s plenty more left to discover.
Buy now £18.99, Steam
A PC game perfect for playing with up to 10 friends online, Among Us is challenging but very easy to learn. Helped tremendously by being accessible on phones as well as PCs, it’s kept us amused and in touch with friends during lockdown. Whether your friendships will last after playing it, however, is another question entirely.
The concept is straightforward: you are colourful space folks preparing your ship for launch. Unfortunately, a number of you are not happy space friends, but evil aliens. Aliens and friends look exactly the same, and, at a glance, behave the same way too. The astronauts must find and eject the aliens while completing tasks to get the ship ready to launch, while the aliens need to kill as many crew as possible while not getting caught, and also sabotaging the tasks the crew have completed.
After you die (multiple times) you can float around the ship as a ghost, and also communicate with other ghosts in a private chat. Living crewmates, meanwhile, can report bodies, check security footage, call emergency meetings and make deductions via the map to identify the aliens. It’s quick, gripping and super fun, and absolutely one of the best PC games to play using voice chat with friends.
Buy now £3.99, Steam
‘Night in the Woods’
A much-praised independent darling, Night in the Woods is a gorgeous coming-of-age adventure set in a sleepy, struggling town. You play as Mae, a young anthropomorphic cat who has returned home after dropping out of university. Aimless and worn down, she tries to reconnect with old friends, while also attempting to fend off her more destructive urges.
As game protagonists go, Mae is relatable and very flawed. Each day you hang out with your friends – who wrestle with their own problems – hop around the town’s rooftops and even practise bass with your band. Meanwhile, something unseemly lurks in the woods: its grisly evidence is scattered around the town.
Night in the Woods begins as a poignant tale of coming home, but then follows a dark mystery that explores the meaning of existence. As well as having an incredible story that allows for multiple choices and delightful minigames, it’s also absolutely beautiful, with fluid, cartoonesque visuals that render out constellations and carnival toys with superb detail.
An adventure game for anyone who’s ever been adrift, Night in the Woods packs a lot of heart. We found it to be a very soulful title indeed.
Buy now £14.99, Steam
In the popular grand strategy game Stellaris, you forge an interstellar empire. Playing as any number of detailed alien races – from murdering mushrooms to reptilians or undying necromancers – with unique flaws and inclinations, you’ll discover planets, treasures and wonders, all while building among the stars.
As well as completing quests, you’ll also build your colonies and space-travel capacity. This is the type of game for someone who dreams about wormholes and gravity wells. One of the most complex strategy PC games around, Stellaris provides an in-depth experience that creates rather incredible, and often very strange, stories. There’s so much to do, and diplomacy and war is definitely a unique experience with a multitude of alien races. It’s an absolutely huge game. We’ve found that there was plenty left to discover following 10 hours of play, although it does take a little while to understand it. That said, your AI companion helps out as you go.
With epic live space battles with bright and deadly war fleets, Stellaris is the perfect strategy for sci-fi fans. A range of expansions adds everything from space-faring door-to-door salesmen to gigantic laser-spewing space beasts.
Buy now £34.99, Steam
One of the most highly rated PC games of 2020, Paradise Killer is a fun murder mystery adventure with a lurid cosmic horror twist.
As detective Lady Love Dies, you are called out of banishment to unravel a bloody murder that has taken place in Paradise. After interrogating your suspects and unravelling the island’s neon-hued secrets, you’ll decide who’s guilty. It’s a bright game, set to a dreamy, upbeat soundtrack, that also features demons and unknowable entities from beyond the stars. We absolutely adored Paradise Killer for its gloriously rendered plane of crystal clear seas and eerie pink moons. The mystery itself is very engaging too, with the game providing plenty of choices. It marries immersive detective work with high-octane worldbuilding for a truly dazzling whodunnit, so that, at the end, it actually feels like you’ve solved a mystery.
You’ll also jump around the towers of Paradise, using your god-like powers to leap and bound, and complete occult hacking puzzles. At the core of Paradise Killer is a range of colourful and chaotic characters, including but not limited to a goat-headed celebrity and an amicable bright red skeleton. Around these characters, you’ll encounter strange alien gods, ritual sacrifice and delicious sparkling beverages. The history of the island is surreal and a thrill to decode.
Buy now £15.49, Steam
‘Return of the Obra Dinn’
The most well-known video game about working for an insurance company, Return of the Obra Dinn sees you untangling the mystery of an abandoned ship using a rather handy magical pocket watch that lets you travel back in time. It comes from the creators of 2013’s Papers Please, which made paper-pushing under a totalitarian regime an exciting experience.
Within the bleak but captivating realms of a distinct one-bit art style, you’ll explore the ship, using a mixture of logical deduction and puzzle-solving to piece together what really happened. Without giving too much away, expect all the horrors of old naval adventures: murder most foul, mutiny and even kraken.
You’ll see the doomed folks on the ship at the instant of their death. At first, we found this curious, but as the story of the ship unfolded, we began to feel a part of its crew and were surprised at the emotion created through the game’s stark, frozen vignettes. All the while, you’ll fill out a tome detailing the antics that led to the ship’s demise.
One of the finest PC adventure games out there, it’s an ideal choice for anyone who enjoys deduction, a gripping story and distinctive retro graphics.
Buy now £15.49, Steam
For those looking for an ultra-violent good time, you can’t go wrong with the Doom series. Instalment Doom: Eternal tasks you with fighting off invading forces from hell as a one-man army. A savage mix of blood, metal and brutal kills await.
The wonderful thing about the Doom series is that it’s never really taken itself too seriously. And so, Doom: Eternal is full of carnage and dark humour, just like its predecessors, with some more lore thrown in for good measure.
You’ll also upgrade your gear as you go, collecting all manner of goodies from felled enemies. It’s worth mentioning the ludicrous weapons: you’ve got your flamethrowers, chainsaws and a super-powered shotgun that has its own grappling hook for nabbing demons. You’ll need them because you’ll be fighting off hordes of enemies that get tougher and nastier the further you ascend through the dimensions.
The pace of Doom: Eternal is intense but also very smooth, making for a super-fun first-person shooter experience that is absolutely exhilarating and not too difficult to pick up.
Buy now £49.99, Steam
‘What Remains of Edith Finch’
It’s hard to describe What Remains of Edith Finch – there isn’t really any other game quite like it. At its root, it’s a series of tales tracing the rather cursed, but often bittersweet endeavours of one family. The stories follow many forms: one sees you transported inside a comic book, another working at a factory while disappearing into a rich daydream, and another transforms you into a multitude of beasts.
Mechanically, it most resembles “walking simulator” games, in which you play a character in a 3D space that roams around. You are Edith, the last remaining Finch, who is exploring her family’s vast estate after seven years away. She traces out her family tree, working out what befell the rest of her clan in generations past.
It’s a heart-rending tale that is only a few hours long and serves as an almost cinematic experience, but with plenty of interesting interactive gameplay. The stories themselves, equal parts whimsical and tragic, are among the best-written in PC gaming right now. It focuses less on puzzles and action, and more on the experience of exploration and understanding. Within that is a larger mystery that is a joy to piece together. All in all, the narrative, art direction and easy-going mechanics of What Remains of Edith Finch make for an unforgettable game.
Buy now £14.99, Steam
The verdict: PC games
Greek-myth-themed action game Hades is incredible on so many levels, from its art to its intense, joyful battles and high-octane soundtrack, all set within a hotbed of meddling relatives. Disco Elysium is a triumph of storytelling and character development, ideal for anyone looking to explore the exciting new ways video games are tackling narrative experiences. Last but not least, Among Us is a fantastic budget option that transfers the delicious evil of social deduction board games into a voice chat-friendly PC game.