2023 was undoubtedly a monumental year for video games. We saw some gigantic sequels from epic AAA IPs, like Baldur’s Gate, Zelda, Spider-Man, Mario, and more. With so many huge titles taking up space in our library, it’s been even easier than normal to miss out on some truly hidden gems. We want to spend some time highlighting those epic small-yet-mighty titles, following on from our official Top 10 countdown.
With that in mind, here are Checkpoint Gaming’s hidden gems of 2023.
En Garde! is like if you translated the quick wit and swashbuckling goodness of The Princess Bride into a charming adventure sword fighting game that is sweet and brief. You play a legendary adventure and hero of the people lost to time, seeing iron clash as you fence and swordfight your way through an onslaught of inquisitors and noblemen. In the game’s four chapters, the very goal of it all is to be as unsportsmanlike as possible with your opponents. Maybe you kick them down a flight of stairs or lob a pot up in the air, only for it to land over their head, blinding them. This is only some of the effective means of catching enemies by surprise, always accompanied by oh-so-good animations that are comical and over the top. If you think you’ve already experienced enough thoughtful but simple comedy in your action games then you ain’t seen nothing yet.
This is a game that has it all. The setpiece levels are bright and vibrant, further inviting you into its world. Plenty of humour is found throughout, whether that’s the quips made mid-battle or comedic dialogue you’ll find between two guards, unaware of your presence. Better yet, it even has the time to be surprisingly queer, including a mysterious figure in a friendly rival turned flame turned rival again, always keeping our hero flustered and on her toes.
Remaining short but sweet and always leaving you wanting more, En Garde! is truly a hidden gem of 2023, with this debut from indie studio Fireplace Games feeling like the start of something bigger and better to come. This is a title that is a cut above the rest and not to be missed in your catchup of 2023 games.
Bang-On Balls: Chronicles
Of all the games that I have covered this year, Bang-On Balls: Chronicles has to be the biggest pleasant surprise. A Super Mario Odyssey-style open-world collectathon platformer, what sets Bang-On Balls: Chronicles apart is the sheer amount of depth to its explorable settings and the appeal of its visuals and animation. From mindboggling missions that see your player ball-fighting Norse gods, flying into space and sailing the seven seas, the game packs an impressive amount of material into a small ball-shaped package. Not to mention the truly extravagant extent of character (ball?) customisation, letting you dress up how you like, however you roll.
It isn’t the longest experience in the world; with only four areas to explore at the moment (with a Wild West world still set to be added in a free update sometime in the future), the game can fly by if you blaze through the critical objectives. However, there is a wealth of optional content for those looking to fully experience what the game has to offer, as well as local and online co-op multiplayer for those looking to roll with their friends. If you’re a fan of open-world collectathon platformers and looking for something a bit different and off-kilter, you owe it to yourself to check out Bang-On Balls: Chronicles.
Fire, bright lights, big weapons, revenge – Showgunners combines all these elements and places them in the reality TV setting of Homicidal All-Stars, where contestants either are victorious through the funhouse-style levels or end up going home in a body bag. You play as Scarlet, a contestant with major beef with the final boss, Ulysses Derrick, and has to work through several arenas filled with baddies to reach him.
Each of the eight levels is an “episode” of Homicidal All-Stars and begins with making your way through puzzles, deadly obstacles and ambushes to reach one of the 31 combat arenas scattered throughout each stage. Though gameplay in these levels is third-person perspective and lets you free roam throughout, combat within ambushes and arenas is top-down and turn-based. As you make your way through these levels, you will encounter Homicidal All-Stars alumni who help you throughout your playthrough. Though you will always play as Scarlet when you are exploring levels, you can choose from any of these additional characters to take with you in the combat arenas, giving you the freedom to decide what kind of special abilities and weapons you will take into fight with you.
Showgunners’ explosive Cyberpunk aesthetic, high-energy gameplay and the way it continuously introduces new characters, abilities and plot twists made this an easy choice for me to include in our hidden gems of 2023.
World of Horror
You’d be forgiven for not having heard of World of Horror, a weird, text-based roguelite RPG that delivers plenty of otherworldly spooks. A cosmic horror with unmistakable retro vibes, World of Horror combines turn-based combat with creepy and crucial decision-making that can make each playthrough unique, but also very horrifying.
With branching stories, compelling mysteries and disturbing revelations, the writing is on-point, offering creepy tales that will stick with you. The game is a love letter to Junji Ito and HP Lovecraft, and it shows. It’s also the sort of terrifying experience that focuses on unnerving you, rather than using jump scares. A creepy doll sits in the corner of an empty gymnasium, Looking through the peephole in the front door shows a strange character watching you as they enter their apartment. And what the hell is outside, and why can’t I open that door?
Each choice feels harrowing, and each short story is just the right amount of creepy; with its distinct visual style (that can be changed for each story to be a different colour palette all within the same retro aesthetic), it stands out as the perfect game to be played for a short time or a captivating long time. Did you like darkwebSTREAMER at PAX Australia? Then you simply must play World of Horror.
A Date With Death
Have you ever wanted to date death? No? Me either… but if you wanted to, you can now. A Date With Death is a visual novel otome, where you make a deal with the Grim Reaper himself. Your soul, or his. You have to survive seven days, and you either win or lose, it’s that simple. Each day ends by talking to Grim, via a video communication service. It’ll switch between messaging and video calls. You can choose whether or not you’re distant with him, friendly, or maybe even ridiculously thirsty. While on the messaging side of the app, the left-hand side has ads for other games by different studios, like Slay the Princess. All the ads parody the type of ads like for the mobile game Episodes: do X or DIVORCE!
This game came out fairly recently, so it has a reason as to why it’s a hidden gem. But man oh man, first off, it’s free. You can get a fantastic story from start to finish without paying a cent. I, however, paid for the DLC while I was in character customisation. The DLC is $10.25AUD, which goes to support a FREE GAME. The DLC provides more clothes to customise your appearance, certain lines of dialogue that are marked with a star, as well as an additional ending. The game is inherently queer. You can have the option of a large chest or not, and you can be nonbinary including using neo-pronouns. You can also decide the type of compliments you like, beautiful over handsome. There’s also the ability to enter your first and last name, as well as choosing a pet.
Not only that, but the studio behind it, Two and a Half, is an Australian studio too. The game is also written with such fantastic humour. The fact that there’s contemporary slang used that doesn’t sound weird is such a breath of fresh air. And the fact that you can call death ‘babygirl’ is the pièce de résistance. There’s also a Dangonronpa reference, which I know will get some eyes from the Checkpoint crew. I will now continue to think about death while kicking my feet and giggling. Disgusting. Please play it.
Taking a simple concept of first-person platforming and turning it into something truly special, Beton Brutal is about as niche as it comes but absolutely smashes the goals it set out for itself. Many of my formative gaming experiences revolve around Source mods for games like Counter-Strike and Gary’s Mod, and Beton Brutal taps into that nostalgia beautifully. It combines tough-as-nails and unforgiving difficulty with parkour, and does so with its own unique twists and turns.
Climbing the massive vertical world of Beton Brutal with no save system to rely on, you’re left with only your tenacity, persistence, and constant sense of dread that puts the brutal into the name. The game doesn’t rely on any fancy tricks, it’s just good old-fashioned platforming backed by great level design that encourages you to do slightly better every time. Add some devious horror elements and superb atmosphere and you have the recipe for an amazing experience for a very specific player base.
It’s been a massive year for excellent RPGs, from genre-defining epics like Baldur’s Gate 3 to beautifully nostalgic classics like Sea of Stars. Amongst a throe of fantastic releases sits Thirsty Suitors, a camp, chaotic blend of role-playing game, skate-punk adventure, and dating sim. It’s unapologetically queer and multicultural, and explores the intersection of identities in a bombastic whirlwind of joyful melodrama. Between fighting off unwanted flirtatious suitors in turn-based battles, completing skating challenges, and learning to win your parents’ affection through cooking, this gorgeously fun title never misses a beat.
What struck me in the guts with Thirsty Suitors was its willingness to show flawed, honest characters amidst its chaos. Protagonist Jala’s family is dealing with the effects of intergenerational trauma in complex ways, but it’s narrated so gently and warmly through the cooking mechanic that you gradually get an understanding of her parents’ lives and how this family unit came to be. It was also a delight to meet trans characters that are three-dimensionally realised and whose transness is a source of joy. Also, Kwame can absolutely get it. I loved my time with this title, and it got me excited about what queerness in games can look like in the future.
I’m always looking for chill games to play while watching TV or on the go, and this one has kept me coming back since its launch. You’re given a cue ball that talks to you and a bunch of balls to sink into the holes of the map, and as you play you unlock more and more cards that modify the game. Some of them add new types of balls (like the Hunter, which will chase you if you enter its range), some of them add new rules (like removing your bounce indicator or making the maps bigger). Different challenges pop up for each card, requiring you to achieve bonus objectives to unlock more stuff.
It’s out on Switch and PC as well, but this is an experience that feels perfect for mobile. You can pick it up and within seconds be at the start of a new run. The design is delightful, from the happy-to-stressed expressions on the cue ball, to the colourful levels, to the boppy soundtrack. Even when the rules get hectic, it still feels lighthearted and relaxed, and pulling off some of the trickier shots feels fantastic. Subpar Pool is worth a look if you want a casual, arcade-y toy for the holiday season.
It’s no surprise that Volcano Princess flew under the radar for many; after all, Parenting Sims have got to be one of the most niche genres of gaming out there. But I want to introduce everybody to the joy that comes with micro-managing a high-fantasy princess’s daily schedule until she becomes the most min-maxed lass in the whole kingdom, and Volcano Princess is just the game for it. Set in the medieval Volcano Kingdom, you have to set the school schedule of your young daughter and guide her decisions as she grows into a young lady. There are an impressive number of possible routes for storyline, marriage, and vocation, which creates a highly replayable experience. And the cherry on top is the gentle anime art style with warm lighting effects for that extra layer of detail.
It’s a fantastic example of how good the genre can get, especially when you consider it was made by a development team of just two. Its only drawback is its choppy English translation, but it’s still perfectly understandable and won’t stop you from loving this game. Not since Long Live the Queen have I been quite so hooked on a Parenting Sim!
So, there you have it! Our list of Hidden Gems for 2023.
We hope you find some awesome titles that you missed this year to add onto your pile of gaming goodness. Do you have any hidden gems from the year that we missed?