It’s taken us a while to whip up a guide to the best Xbox Series X|S games because it’s a little hard to define what an Xbox Series X|S game is. Almost every Xbox One game is playable on the Xbox Series consoles (the only exceptions are Kinect games), and every Xbox 360 and original Xbox game on the Xbox Backward Compatibility List is playable on Microsoft’s latest system, too. It doesn’t really make much sense to include games that might have been released over a decade before the Xbox Series X|S ever existed, though. And even though some Xbox One games might rival Xbox Series originals in terms of their technical performance, if they haven’t been rereleased or optimized for the newer systems, we didn’t consider them for this list.
Let’s spell that out more directly: the only games that pop up on this list are ones that were either made explicitly for the Xbox Series X|S, or that have the “optimized for Xbox Series X|S” icon—a tag that denotes, per Microsoft., a game that has been rebuilt or updated to take advantage of the higher specs on the newer systems.
Yeah, I’ve played some Xbox and Xbox 360 games on my Xbox Series X, but that doesn’t make ‘em Xbox Series X games. Fortunately there’s still a broad field of excellent games to sort through, from big-name blockbusters to small-team innovators. And many of them are available through Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s subscription service that gets you access to a constantly changing lineup of hundreds of games for a decent price. No Xbox can play PlayStation or Nintendo exclusives, but if you’re looking for a console that can play a huge variety of games, and makes it easy to discover new ones, the Xbox Series X|S might be the system for you. And here are the 25 best reasons to get one—the best games on the Xbox Series XS.
25. Metal: Hellsinger
Metal: Hellsinger’s sturdy skeleton props up its metallic flesh and beating heart. Scored with love for the genre it’s named after, each song bangs harder than the last. The songs themselves aren’t just spectacular, but they get why you’re there and actively seek to reward fans of the genre. Being a rhythm game, it only stands to reason that the musical aspects are easily Hellsinger’s’ stand out contribution, but I haven’t played something with music and sound design that bolsters what’s happening in-game this well since 2019’s Wattam. It stands to reason that hitting a shot or a dash on beat feels better than not, but on top of a damage boost and a much more satisfying, crunchy sound effect for your weapon of choice when hitting the beat, Hellsinger makes the deliberate choice to reward you for good play.—Charlie Wacholz
24. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Fallen Order stacks some of the best parts of Metroid, Dark Souls and Uncharted inside a Star Wars trenchcoat, but that isn’t the smartest thing it does. That would be how it squarely centers on the stress and trauma of its characters. PTSD should be rampant in this universe, considering war is all anybody seems to know, and yet within the Star Wars canon it’s rarely been focused on as keenly or depicted as clearly as it is here. Its lead characters aren’t all that likable, for reasons that are both intentional and unintentional, and that is a flaw; still, they feel a bit more human than what you normally see in games and Star Wars stories, and that, combined with the guaranteed to please gameplay formula, makes Fallen Order a Star Wars highlight.—Garrett Martin
Fittingly, Sable’s title comes from its protagonist’s name, not her role or the place she lives. It foreshadows the game’s small stakes. Sable is a Glider. Just now coming of age, she leaves her home to discover who she might become and what role she might play. To begin, Sable wears the mask of her culture, made from an Ibex skull. As Sable helps other people, she gets badges, which she can turn in for other masks. For example, she could take the mask of the mechanist becoming an expert on refashioning the ancient machinery around her into something practical. She could become a Climber, exploring the highest margins of the world. She could become something as yet unnamed or unanticipated. Its openness means that Sable makes very few demands of you. In a real sense, everything is optional. Because of that, it actually feels free. It is not the freedom to move through space uninhibited, to dominate or control. Rather it is the freedom to determine who you are, to let the people around you make you into something new.—Grace Benfell
22. Gears 5
The crowning achievement of Gears of War is its over-the-top combat. Everything is so utterly ridiculous, enjoyably so. Repurposed mining tools will drop explosive drills into enemies’ bodies to make them explode in a twister of gore, and there are few things more sickly satisfying in shooters than pulling off a symphony of five splashy headshots with the hefty Boltok, Gears’ answer to Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum. All of these things are still fun and even improved upon thanks your robotic squadmate JACK, who you can direct to lend you aid in useful ways. He can pop down barriers in front of you, blind enemies to stun them, and even freeze them so you do double damage – an essential tactic for taking down some of the bigger monsters. None of JACK’s abilities revolutionize Gears’ messy but timeless take on ducking in and out of cover and reducing foes to red goo with bullets, but it does add an extra tactical layer that makes gunfights more interesting and is a feature that isn’t mired in frustration.—Javy Gwaltney
21. Hi-Fi Rush
Hi-Fi Rush is my dream game come true. I’ve always been a sicko for action and rhythm games, but have admittedly only excelled at the latter since music was a significant part of my upbringing. And though I’ve always heard the analogies about combos in action games being rhythmic, few games have ever taken the actual step towards visualizing that in the way Hi-Fi Rush does, or made it as simple to understand. That is just the first in a long string of things that the game gets right. Setting players up against a metronome that’s brought to life in the world around you makes the game feel magical, and by extension you are magic for harmonizing with it. I loved, for example, during one particular combo that needed me to hit the light attack four times with a rest breaking it up into two segments, that the rest was realized in the character model, clearly delineating when it was time to continue. Because of the constant visual and audio aids, slapping enemies with your magnetically assembled impression of an electric guitar to the beat has never made it simpler to execute short but satisfying combos, only made better by many of their flashy finishes, which also demand accuracy to land most efficiently. I swear the game will have you counting beats, and I often caught myself head banging ever so slightly to Hi-Fi Rush’s impeccable score while wailing away at enemy encounters.—Moises Taveras
20. Monster Hunter Rise
Somehow what turned me off of Monster Hunter games a decade ago has turned into a virtue for me today. Monster Hunter Rise is basically the perfect game for me right now, at the end of the pandemic. The quest structure can still be repetitive, but I now greatly appreciate how segmented it is. Most missions have a 50 minute time limit, but take far less time than that to complete; unlike pretty much every other role-playing game ever made, I can pick up Rise, start a quest, and know that I’ll hit a natural stopping point in under an hour (and often in under 20 minutes). Despite being a really long game, Rise doesn’t feel as much like a commitment as games that are more open-ended. That ease of popping in and out makes Rise a perfect fit for my schedule, where I have to juggle my gaming time with my other responsibilities for work and other interests that I try to get to every day. And Rise’s clear-cut, straight-forward approach to progress makes every minute I spend in the game feel important—which can’t always be said about other time-sucking RPGs.—Garrett Martin
19. No Man’s Sky
Has there ever been a better game to get lost in? No Man’s Sky is aesthetically impeccable, from its psychedelic landscapes pulled straight from Yes album covers, to its krautrock-by-way-of-Friday Night Lights score. It’s easily the best screenshot machine in recent memory. It doesn’t reward the player’s patience and diligence as much as depend on them, which makes it as brave as it is respectful. A game that’s fundamentally hopeless, that’s fixated on the vast emptiness of the universe around us, somehow instills hope in us solely through its undeniable beauty. And a stream of post-release updates have given us even more to do in this massive universe, and people to do it with.—Garrett Martin
18. Persona 5 Royal
Persona 5 might not be for you—maybe you’ve no love for the anime aesthetic, or maybe the notion of an 80-hour game with no open world isn’t your bag. Maybe you don’t like JRPGs!
But maybe, if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend eighty-three hours with this game over the course of a month and sit there as the credits roll with an empty feeling in your chest, turning your year in Tokyo over and over in your head, thinking of the friends you spent time with and the struggles you endured together. Maybe, despite the unreasonable wealth of games that 2017 has afforded us, you’ll navigate back to the main menu and immediately select “New Game Plus.”—Nate Ewert-Krocker
17. Resident Evil 2 (2019)
What makes the remake of Resident Evil 2 work so well is that it is, for the most part, the original game it’s based on. Plenty of changes have been made, but they were all made with the spirit and design of the original Playstation hit in mind, so they feel right at home in a way that makes you question what is new and what was always there, even if you’re familiar with the original. The camera is no longer set above and at an angle, with Claire and Leon moving among pre-rendered backgrounds. Instead, it’s set behind the characters in a third-person perspective, but an intentionally claustrophobic one. To make up for the fact you can now see so much that was once hidden due to the change in viewpoint, the remake emphasizes light—or the absence of it—in a way the original only played with a little bit. The remake isn’t Dead Space-dark or anything, but some brightly lit hallways from the 1998 release are now lacking power and working lights, which helps to maintain the tension of the original even from the new, more expansive, and more detailed perspective.—Marc Normandin
16. Microsoft Flight Simulator
Microsoft Flight Simulator is a technological marvel, with a variety of innovations that make its virtual world as faithful to our real one as possible, and I have no idea how any of it works. Forget the technology, though. The most important thing about Microsoft Flight Simulator is that it’s become an unlikely emotional support system. It connects us to something we can’t currently touch or feel, something we’ve been sorely missing, which is a sense of normalcy. Yeah, it’s an illusion. Yeah, it’s disappointing to take those headphones off and look up from the monitor and realize I’m back in the same house I haven’t left in half a year. But when I’m in that digital cockpit all that stuff fades away, and it takes my stress and depression along with it, at least for a little while. And that’s worth something.—Garrett Martin
15. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 remasters the first two games in the iconic series, updating all the levels from the original games and featuring both the original skaters and new ones. If you’ve been hoping a skating game could recapture the look and feel of those old classics, well, here you go. When I picked up the controller it was like no time had passed. I haven’t played the warehouse level from the very first game in literally decades, and yet it all came back to me immediately once I put thumb to stick.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 isn’t mere nostalgia. It’s a revival. It exhumes a true classic but roots it deeply in the modern world and not in some idealized version of its past. It doesn’t try to hide or ignore the changes of the last 20 years. And that’s one reason it’s one of the best games of 2020.—Garrett Martin
14. Ori and the Will of the Wisps
The brand-new sequel to 2015’s beloved hit has the same beautiful woodland setting and Metroid-style approach to play, but adds enough new mechanics and ideas to make it stand out on its own. It also doubles down on the sense of loss and loneliness and general atmosphere of collapse that gave the first one such an emotional resonance, and has a bittersweet ending that will push even the most hardened cynic to the verge of tears. Play Blind Forest first, then fire this one up.—Garrett Martin
13. Hitman Trilogy
The World of Assassination trilogy redefined the Hitman games as engrossing open-world puzzles with multiple, often intricate solutions. Although the goal is still to murder a target—you wouldn’t be a hitman otherwise—the challenge comes not from shooting or even stealth in the traditional videogame sense, but from noticing the patterns and routines found in each mission, and constructing Goldbergian systems of cause and effect that put you in the right place at the right time to kill your mark. These Hitman games offer a unique form of strategy, and all three are available in a single bundle on Game Pass.—Garrett Martin
12. Death’s Door
Death’s Door implicitly argues something the entertainment world at large needs to understand: Nostalgia doesn’t have to be shameless or oppressive. It doesn’t have to be the summation of a game’s (or a movie’s, or a TV show’s) ambition. It doesn’t have to be splashed all over the cover and title screen, or the full extent of the marketing campaign. Death’s Door deeply evokes the spirit of some of the most beloved games of all time, and does it well enough that anybody familiar with those legendary games will no doubt recognize and appreciate it. And it does all this with a context and presentation that makes it feel new and vital and not just like a calculated imitation of the past. It takes so much of what made the original Zelda and A Link to the Past into timeless classics, but makes them into their own. Nostalgia can be part of the package, but it shouldn’t be the whole point, and Death’s Door’s cocktail of mechanical nostalgia and narrative creativity is something we don’t see enough of in today’s IP-crazed business.—Garrett Martin
11. Forza Horizon 5
Forza Horizon 5 is the most gorgeous and dynamic game I’ve played on the Xbox Series X by a mile. That said, the beauty of the game isn’t just in the mechanics alone. It’s in how the game loves, respects, and brings Mexico to life. When it comes to representing Mexico on-screen, Americans like one thing, and pretty much one thing only: Sepia tones. Baked in browns and oranges, representations of Mexico on screen in film and television strip the country of its beauty and distill it down into its most stereotypical parts, often using it to highlight narcos. But in Forza Horizon 5 the diversity of the races is met with the diversity of Mexico itself. Mexico isn’t just a desert landscape, and the 11 distinct biomes in the game highlight that. It’s clear that a lot of love went into Forza Horizon 5. You can see it in the car selection. You can see it in the environmental design. You can hear it in the playlists. This game thrives on a culture of love that is baked into every gameplay element. In every way, Forza Horizon 5 is a love letter to Mexicans, and it’s one I’m thrilled that I opened.—Kate Sánchez
On every level, Pentiment’s illustrations, storytelling choices, and most clearly people are a mirror for the manuscripts that shape its characters’ lives. Whether they read or not, everyone is a repository of history, with their own verbal handwriting, quirks, and opinions on what the town of Tassing’s legacy should be. These human texts open up genuinely insightful questions about authenticity in art and what it will come to mean centuries later, as well as what to do when your history has been lost to you. It is a beautiful portrait of history that doesn’t limit itself from commenting on labor inequity, parental loss, or artistic hopelessness, all things the medieval and early modern art it draws from portrays so vividly. In bringing some of those stories to us today, Pentiment accomplishes the remarkable goal of being both clear-eyed about the medieval period’s faults, and sincere about its masterpieces.—Emily Price
Sam Barlow has created his own micro-genre of games built around mundane video sources. First it was the police interrogation videos of Her Story, and then the video calls of Telling Lies. With Immortality, Barlow and his team go fully cinematic, presenting a mystery about a forgotten actress from the late ‘60s who disappeared after her three starring roles went unreleased. The footage from those lost films resemble different styles of film from two different eras, and the interface is set up like an old Moviola editing desk. You’ll sort through her short film career looking for insight into why she vanished, clicking from one clip to another, including outtakes and talk show appearances. Over time the mystery takes an unsettling turn into horror, but Immortality doesn’t lose site of its themes—voyeurism, the power of sex, the inherent exploitation of movies, the specific exploitation and power dynamics of the director/actor relationship, etc.—in chase of scares.—Garrett Martin
8. Disco Elysium: The Final Cut
Disco Elysium is a gloriously complex isometric RPG, starring a drug-addicted detective with memory issues in a town that has seen better days, that takes its cues from classics like Fallout or Wasteland. Stressing out about every last detail distracts from the tremendous depth built into the world of Disco Elysium, and I’m ready to stop over-preparing and otherwise manifesting my anxiety in videogames. If anything, it will make additional playthroughs, customized by the game’s peculiar set of character skills, an appealing possibility. I look forward to all the secrets that will soon unravel about Disco Elysium. But even better, I’m feeling comfortable with the mystery.—Holly Green
7. Elden Ring
Platforms: PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Elden Ring borrows—grafts, really—elements from all of of From’s Souls games together. But it’s Bloodborne that’s really the reason for this game being the open world that it is. In Chalice Dungeons we saw a purity of form that the Soulsborne micro genre was poised to capitalize on, but couldn’t quite deliver. Procedural dungeons accessed from a menu. A place where minibosses and remixes of bosses would flourish, where the skill of dungeon-delving players could be tested and rewarded repeatedly. Not necessarily a haven for more lore, but for the most stalwart of players there would be deep thematic resonance at the end. But really, sick dungeons for the sake of sick dungeons.
Elden Ring says “what if we took the lessons we learned from Chalice Dungeons…and that was the game.” An open world, after all, is only as good as the dark holes that perforate its beautiful surface, the land is only as interesting as its scars.
And these dungeons, especially the big ones, are compelling like no other. This is the apotheosis in this work—the exaltation of the dungeon designer.—Dia Lacina
6. Citizen Sleeper
You can think of Citizen Sleeper as a sort of digital board game set in a sci-fi dystopia beset by end-stage capitalism and all the rampant dehumanization that entails. It’s a game about work and death where the only levity comes from the relationships we make with others—yes, the friends we made along the way, but not nearly as banal or obvious as that sounds. It questions what it means to be a person in a system that inherently subjugates personhood to corporations and wealth, and it probably won’t surprise you that the answers it lands on aren’t always the most optimistic or uplifting. Here at Paste Cameron Kunzelman described its “melancholy realism” as part of a trend alongside other story-driven games that are largely hostile to the dominance of capitalism, and it echoes the impossibility of thinking seriously about this medium, this industry, and, well, every aspect of society today without discussing the impersonal economic system that drives it all. It’s a heady RPG that respects your time and intelligence, and one of this year’s must-play games.
5. A Plague Tale: Innocence
This subtle, believable approach to characterization reinforces that A Plague Tale is an unusually patient and confident game. It lets its story unfold slowly, avoiding the urge to dole out increasingly elaborate set pieces with a predictable regularity. It never lets its pacing or sure-handed command of character become subservient to plot or the need for action or difficulty that’s assumed of videogames. Sometimes the notes a publisher sends game developers can be felt while playing a game—there’ll be too many action sequences, or ones that drag on for too long, or stories will feel truncated, as if a crucial plot point or bit of character development was cut out to make things move faster. That never happens with A Plague Tale, which maintains a consistent vision and pursues it at its own pace.—Garrett Martin
4. Psychonauts 2
Psychonauts 2 feels like a game made by real people who care about real people. Many games have come down the pike the last several years with a focus on the psychological state of its characters, and thus its players, but too often they lack any tact or any legitimate insight into how people think and feel. They use sorrow and violence as shortcuts, relying on cheap scares and easy provocation. It’s like they’re made by machines, or the board room, or some algorithm that slightly rearranges previous AAA hits into something that’s supposedly new. Too many of these games fall into that witless trap of thinking something “serious” and “important” must also be humorless and dark, unrelentingly grim and fatalistic. Psychonauts 2 reveals that for the nonsense that it is, showing that you can more powerfully and realistically depict emotion when you use warmth, humor, humanity—the whole scope of emotions that make us who we are. Psychonauts 2 asks “how does it feel to feel?”, and then shows the answer to us—and the games industry at large—in brilliant colors.—Garrett Martin
3. Control: Ultimate Edition
Remedy has worked hard to unite the mysterious and the mundane since at least Alan Wake, and Control is an almost ideal distillation of that theme. At its heart is the bureaucratic exploration of the unknown and unknowable, with the player stepping into the role of the new director of a government organization devoted to classifying and controlling unexplained phenomena. It’s an enigmatic and unpredictable quest not just into a nondescript office building that grows increasingly contorted and abstract, but into the heart of a conspiracy that spans the paranormal and the prosaic, and one that ultimately seems to have little use or concern for either the player or their character. In its depiction of humanity grasping for relevance and understanding in an indifferent and impossible to understand universe we see a clear reflection of our own existence. It’s a game of uncommon wisdom and depth, and one that needs to be played.—Garrett Martin
As a Southerner I don’t really trust anybody to write about the South unless they, too, are from here—or at least have lived here long enough to truly understand what makes it great and awful in equal measure, and how the ways in which the South is actually fucked up often diverge from the ways in which outsiders think it’s fucked up. Norco, a smart narrative-driven game about the unique ways in which institutions like religion and big business have exploited the South, its people and its land throughout history, is clearly the work of people who understand this region and its fundamental defects. It’s an unflinching, occasionally surreal glimpse into an only slightly exaggerated version of Louisiana, with its mythical and allegorical flourishes only highlighting the aimless mundanity and real-life degradations of the modern South. If you only play one game from this list, make it Norco.—Garrett Martin
What makes Hades so great—and what elevates it above other roguelikes—is how it creates a consistent sense of progress even as you keep dying and restarting. Part of that is mechanical—although you lose all the boons bestowed upon you by the Greek gods after a run ends, along with other power-ups acquired during your journeys through the underworld, there are a few things you do hang on to when you return to the game’s hub world. More important than that, though, is how the game’s narrative unfolds between runs, driving you to keep playing through whatever frustration you might feel in hopes of learning more about the game’s story and characters.
Between every run in Hades your character, Zagreus, returns to his home—the palace of his father, Hades, the God of the Dead. Yep, he’s another rich kid who feels his first bit of angst and immediately starts slumming it. Here you can interact with various characters, upgrade the decor, unlock new permanent perks, and practice with the game’s small arsenal of weapons. Every time you return the characters who live here have new things to say, slowly unraveling their own storylines and deepening their relationships with Zagreus. And given that the writing in Hades is as consistently sharp and human as it’s been in all of Supergiant’s games, getting to talk to these characters alone is a reason to actually look forward to dying in this game.—Garrett Martin