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Our Favorite iOS Games (2019 Edition)

Favorite Games 2019 Hero

2019 was an incredible year for gaming on the iPhone and iPad. Many of us who pay attention to this market had sadly begun writing off the App Store’s gaming section as fading into obsolescence, thanks to the glut of โ€œfreemiumโ€ titles that lure you in with flashy visuals and addictive gameplay before using every trick in the book to nickel-and-dime you into the ground.

We’re happy to say that the App Store gaming industry is dying no more โ€” on the contrary, it’s booming. In fact, we’ve got a bunch of awesome titles below that we’d love for you to check out, because we’ve sure had a blast playing them ourselves.

Jump straight to whichever section/game you like:

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App Store Games

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Favorite Games 2019 โ€” App Store

This is the โ€œclassicโ€ portion of our list, if you will, featuring standalone games from the App Store we absolutely think are worth your time.


Hyper Light Drifter: Special Edition »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Hyper Light Drifter: Special Edition

($5)

Heart Machine’s Hyper Light Drifter is an action-RPG with gorgeous pixel art visuals, brutally challenging gameplay, and an apocalyptic story inspired by creator Alex Prestonโ€™s congenital heart disease. You play as a โ€œDrifterโ€ who is suffering from an unspecified illness yet happens to be an extremely skilled swordsman who can dash around like a ninja with no hard limit.

There’s no real dialogue to speak of as you explore and battle through each area โ€” only vague imagery and abstract storytelling. You sort of have to piece the plot together for yourself as you go.

Battle sequences throughout are hard-won, often requiring you to redo them over and over until you can finally pass through a scene without dying. Thereโ€™s nothing quite like the feeling of becoming so acquainted with a specific series of enemies that you learn to hack-n-slash and weave around them like some kind of violent ballet dancer, finally landing all the hits needed so you can proceed with a tiny bit of health into the next scene, where you have to do it all over again. Way more fun than it sounds.


Dead Cells »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Dead Cells

($9)

If you asked us to point to one game on our list and say, โ€œThis is what iOS gaming can be,โ€ Dead Cells would be it.

Another port with merciless difficulty and a lush pixel art style, Dead Cells is a fast-paced action-platformer in the vein of Castlevania, but with a rogue-lite twist in that when you die โ€” yes, that’s a when, not an if โ€” you get to keep some of your upgrades when you’re sent back to the beginning. With each death, you also unlock new sections of the procedurally generated levels, with enemies and items randomly placed. The replay-ability factor is high.

On top of intense action and eye-catching visuals, the game’s music and sound design are also top-notch. This is truly an experience you don’t want to miss.


Grimvalor »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Grimvalor

($6)

At this point it seems like every game we’re mentioning today is a sword-swinging action-adventure, but I promise we’re going to mix it up soon. I just need to point out one more because it’s so highly polished.

Grimvalor is a darkly atmospheric โ€” and yes, deeply challenging โ€” hack-n-lash dungeon platformer that rewards exploration of its many, many nooks and crannies with special equipment, trinkets, and even bonus boss fights. When it comes to actual combat, you will find it extremely satisfying chaining together attacks and acrobatic maneuvers to take down some pretty tough enemies.


Rolando: Royal Edition »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Rolando: Royal Edition

($3)

In the early days of the App Store, a charming little platformer called Rolando became a smash hit and proved to the masses what mobile gaming could be, thanks to a bit of ingenuity and outside-the-box thinking. Sadly, it disappeared for a couple years when Apple put the kibosh on 32-bit games.

However, those gloomy days came to an end with the release of Rolando: Royal Edition, a rewritten-from-the-ground-up experience that takes everything we loved about the original game and brought it into the modern era. They didnโ€™t just convert it to 64-bit architecture here โ€” they remastered all of the visuals, most notably adding a lush, shifting, three-dimensional depth to what used to be a flat world, ร  la LittleBigPlanet.

They also tightened up all the controls, making everything feel snappier and more polished, and gave the individual Rolandos more personality than ever. In short, it’s even more fun to play than it was a decade ago.


Alto’s Odyssey »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Alto's Odyssey

($5)

We covered the Alto’s Adventure endless snowboarding game in our previous guide, and if you enjoyed playing that, you’ll love its sequel, Alto’s Odyssey.

This one is an endless sandboarding journey with all the design hallmarks of the first game: fluid physics, dynamic lighting, weather effects, procedurally generated terrain, etc. However, the backdrops will have you exploring new types of places, such as canyons, deserts, beaches, temple cities, and even hot air balloons.

There are also different elements to master than before, like sandstorms, wind vortexes, and rushing water. The gameโ€™s serene soundtrack is a joy to listen to and adds a lot of ambiance as you play.

Completing the in-game challenges and unlocking new characters/abilities is certainly fun, but one of the most appealing features for us is the โ€œZen Modeโ€, which doesn’t keep score and doesn’t start all the way over if you fall. Just pure boarding bliss ๐Ÿ˜Œ๐Ÿค™


Gorogoa »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Gorogoa

($5)

Given that Gorogoa is the first game Jason “Jake” Roberts ever developed, it must’ve come as a stupendous surprise when it earned Apple’s 2018 iPad Game of the Year award last year โ€” and a well-deserved distinction it was.

In this lavishly hand-illustrated puzzler, you play as a boy who seeks hidden meaning in the world around him. To that end, your role in the game is to manipulate a series of sliding puzzle-like panels โ€” each of which could stand alone as a piece of artwork, some with layers and layers of depth โ€” arranging and combining them in imaginative ways to discover their relationships with one another.

Sometimes you’ll align two panels to create a panoramic scene the boy can then traverse, or you’ll layer one over another to reveal an object or next step of the puzzle.

It’s easier to understand if you just watch it in action:


Stardew Valley »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Stardew Valley

($5)

Stardew Valley is one of those games that will quickly suck all your free time away if youโ€™re not careful. Not something youโ€™d anticipate from a farming simulator, but true all the same.

This open-ended โ€œcountry lifeโ€ RPG starts off with you taking over your late grandpa’s old dilapidated farm in Pelican Town. To turn things around, you’re tasked with jobs like clearing the land, harvesting crops, fishing, raising lifestock, crafting goods, mining for ore, and battling cave creatures. You take on these activities only as you see fit, which takes a lot of the stress out of things.

But, the more interesting stuff comes from the social aspect of the game. You can interact with any of the villagers living in and around the town, each of whom has a unique personality. You can offer them gifts (taking their likes/dislikes into account), become friends with them, answer their โ€œHelp Wantedโ€ ads, and with certain characters, you can even get married and start a family!

To match the gameโ€™s generally calm and peaceful atmosphere, the expansive soundtrack is as pleasantly soothing as youโ€™d hope.


Sky: Children of the Light »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Sky: Children of the Light

(Free to download, with various bundles available for purchase)

Some games are the kind you experience more than you play. thatgamecompany achieved this years ago with Journey, a game that affected me deeply the first time I completed it (and again on several subsequent playthroughs). This year they released Sky, which is very much cut from the same cloth.

You play as a Child of Light whose mission is to explore a series of enchanting kingdoms, finding fallen stars and restoring them to the sky. Along the way, you’ll collect light that allows you to fly and visit new places, as well as interact with players online (i.e. other Children of the Light) in charming ways, growing friendships and working together to solve mysteries. You’ll also have to adventure into some dangerous locales as you go.

The dreamlike visuals in Sky alone are worth experiencing, even if you get nothing else out of it. This game is a veritable feast of stunning vistas, soaring heights, magical effects, and wonderfully strange creatures.


Oddmar »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Oddmar

($5)

Oddmar is a lighthearted and cartoony Norse-themed action-platformer that puts you in control of a goofy little Viking named โ€” you guessed it โ€” Oddmar, who…well, let’s just say he’s not known as the greatest warrior of all, nor does he seem destined for Valhalla.

One day, however, he stumbles upon a quest that just might allow him to be redeemed in the eyes of his people. He goes on an axe-swinging, shield-surfing, high-jumping adventure in amusing animated style, journeying through magical locales, defeating big bosses, and winning us over every step of the way with his big grin.


OXENFREE »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Oxenfree

(Free to download โ€” $5 to unlock full game)

In the critically acclaimed OXENFREE, you play as a rebellious teenage girl named Alex as she embarks on a supernatural adventure when an overnight party on a decommissioned military island goes horribly wrong, resulting in the accidental opening of a dimensional rift.

It’s pretty much like playing through the story of an ’80s teen horror film, except you have a say in how the game progresses through the choices you make, both in terms of how you choose to explore the island and in the conversations you have with other characters.

The game’s sinister vibe and moody soundtrack will have you on the edge of your seat the entire time. A fantastic experience we highly recommend.

Wait. There’s a Bonus…

Curated List of Must-Have Apps

We spend an inordinate amount of time sorting through hundreds of apps to find the very best. And based on our own usage, plus the feedback of our readers, we have put together a short list of our must-have, most-used apps in 2019.

You will get…

  • The current list of The Sweet Setup’s top 8, must-have apps.
  • A special, pro tip for each app to help you save time and become more of a power user.
  • A hidden feature of each app that you may not have known about.

These apps work on iPad, iPhone, and Mac. And they range across several different categories but are mostly focused on productivity. We hope this will help you get the most out of your devices and your day.

This guide is available for FREE to our email subscriber community. And you can get it right now. By joining the Sweet Setup community youโ€™ll also get access to our other guides, early previews to big new reviews and workflow articles we are working on, weekly roundups of our best content, and more.

GET THE LIST

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Apple Arcade Games

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Favorite Games 2019 โ€” Apple Arcade

And now we come to Apple Arcade, Apple’s new(ish) Netflix-esque game subscription service, introduced with iOS 13. For just $5 a month (!), you get access to a library of over 100 (and counting) exclusive games that can’t be purchased directly from the App Store.

We’re not exaggerating when we say this service will likely change iOS gaming forever. Time will tell if it will be in good or bad ways, but for now, let’s simply enjoy the fantastic and groundbreaking games below.


Cat Quest II »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Cat Quest II

In Cat Quest II, you (either alone or with a friend) play as both a cat and dog โ€” the respective rulers of rival kingdoms Felingard and the Lupus Empire โ€” who are brought together against their will. Together, they must put aside their differences and explore what is essentially an open and highly detailed RPG world map, defeating enemies and generally having a fun time along the way.

This game would be a great way to introduce a kid to RPGs. It’s lighthearted and full of laughs, and the equipment system isn’t overly complex.


WHAT THE GOLF? »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” WHAT THE GOLF?

WHAT THE GOLF? bills itself as โ€œthe golf game for people who don’t like golfโ€ and that it’s โ€œmade by people who know nothing about golf, and it will not make you a better golf player!โ€ With a description like that, how could we not try it out?

This game has you using physics in the most absurd and comical ways, like flipping an entire house along a putt-putt style course, or having you complete silly mini-games inspired by classics like Super Mario Bros., Portal, Katamari Damacy, and Guitar Hero.

It’s all zany good fun, and if you’re already signed up for Apple Arcade, we highly recommend giving this one a shot.


Cardpocalypse »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Cardpocalypse

Our fellow ’90s kids will appreciate Cardpocalypse, a single-player RPG that takes place in an elementary school where everyone’s obsessed with this card battle game based on a fictional TV show called Mega Mutant Power Pets. Yeah, that about sums up our childhoods alright. #nostalgia

The school teachers don’t care much for this whole craze, and they end up confiscating everyone’s cards. You play as a 10yo wheelchair-bound girl named Jess, who helps her peers solve problems, builds and customizes her deck of cards to a legendary level, and of course, engage in card battles to save the world from an invasion of demons. All in a day’s work, am I right?


Sayonara Wild Hearts »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Sayonara Wild Hearts

From the makers of Gorogoa comes perhaps the most ambitious and madly stylish game on Apple Arcade: Sayonara Wild Hearts. You play as a heartbroken female heroine who assumes a masked, motorcycle-riding guise as she propels through a colorful urban dreamscape, battling rivals in various kinds of rhythm-based combat to a fantastically ethereal synth-pop soundtrack.

This isn’t just one of the best games on Arcade, but on iOS, period.


Grindstone »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Grindstone

From the makers of iOS classics like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP and Critter Crunch comes Grindstone, a Cartoon Network-esque puzzle RPG that combines item-matching with turn-based combat.

You play as a savage barbarian guy who has to fight his way through hordes of creeps lined up across a grid, slashing through them by creating matches in various directions. Match 10 or more in a row and you earn a grindstone, allowing you to keep the combo going by switching to a different type of monster on the grid.

If your turn ends next to an enraged monster, they attack you. These monsters begin adding up quickly though, and you don’t have many health points, so you start having to strategize where your combos land, along with the timing of your exit from each level โ€” which is left wholly up to you, rather than giving you a set number of turns โ€” before you’re overrun.


Skate City »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Skate City

The makers of Alto’s Adventure/Odyssey are seemingly the kings of casual yet artistic side-scrolling games with relaxing vibes. They proved that once again when Skate City released alongside the launch of Apple Arcade.

The concept is simple: You get to skate through dynamic cities like Los Angeles, Oslo, and Barcelona, doing trick combos with intuitive touch controls and upgrading your skills and gear as you complete challenges. For the most zen-like experience though, activate Endless Skate mode, put in some headphones, and chill to the lo-fi beats as you skate your worries away.


Where Cards Fall »

TSS Favorite Games โ€” Where Cards Fall

Here’s another one from the folks behind Alto’s Odyssey and Skate City, but this time it’s a more ambitious game with a powerful coming-of-age story rather than something you merely relax to. In Where Cards Fall, you play as a young man who relives memories of his adolescence, with all the emotional highs and lows that entails.

These reminiscent explorations are told through increasingly complex spatial puzzles that you solve by building and disassembling houses and platforms of cards โ€” sometimes interacting with environmental factors like clouds and the wind โ€” so you can traverse each level and get from A to B, all while the character examines his own memories and does some soul searching along the way.

It’s not often that a puzzle game can be described as emotionally gripping and thought provoking like this, and you’d be remiss not to experience it.

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Hardware

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Favorite Games 2019 โ€” Hardware

Most of the games on this list support playing with third-party wireless controllers โ€” which you can check against the excellent Controller.wtf database โ€” and in just about all those cases, that’s the way we would recommend playing. Nothing against touch controls (when they’re good), but they just don’t quite match the way a controller feels and handles.

There are three main controllers we’d recommend:

  1. Xbox One wireless controller ($44)
  2. DualShock 4 controller for PS4 ($45)
  3. SteelSeries Nimbus MFi controller ($50)

We would personally go for either the Xbox or PS4 controller depending on your ergonomic preference, as the Nimbus โ€” which was once the king of iOS controllers, prior to iOS 13 โ€” does not support L3/R3 (as in, clicking the joysticks downward) and is still more expensive somehow.

However, it’s worth knowing that the button prompts you see in games do tend to match the colors/symbols on the Nimbus, whereas they don’t necessarily with the Xbox/PS4 controllers. That may change as developers code their games to more intelligently recognize what controller the player is using.

Wait. There’s a Bonus…

Curated List of Must-Have Apps

We spend an inordinate amount of time sorting through hundreds of apps to find the very best. And based on our own usage, plus the feedback of our readers, we have put together a short list of our must-have, most-used apps in 2019.

You will get…

  • The current list of The Sweet Setup’s top 8, must-have apps.
  • A special, pro tip for each app to help you save time and become more of a power user.
  • A hidden feature of each app that you may not have known about.

These apps work on iPad, iPhone, and Mac. And they range across several different categories but are mostly focused on productivity. We hope this will help you get the most out of your devices and your day.

This guide is available for FREE to our email subscriber community. And you can get it right now. By joining the Sweet Setup community youโ€™ll also get access to our other guides, early previews to big new reviews and workflow articles we are working on, weekly roundups of our best content, and more.

GET THE LIST