The best games for laptops and low-end PCs
No graphics card? No problem.
PC gaming is often synonymous with performance. Tech specs, frame rates, resolutions, settings menus—we dedicate thousands and thousands of words to these topics, spend hours obsessing over the details.
But for every person running Crysis there’s another fending off an upgrade and squeezing the last ounces of power out of their older or low-end desktop PC, or someone valiantly trying to game on a hand-me-down non-gaming laptop. This list is for you folks. Below, you’ll find a list of games that any PC can play. Or at least any from the last decade. Probably.
Editor’s note: This article is updated periodically with new and/or updated entries.
Return of the Obra Dinn
Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please follow-up took longer than anyone expected, even him, but the wait was well worth it.
The merchant ship Obra Dinn left port with a full crew and returned empty a full five years later, and it’s fallen to you to answer why. Your only aid? A magic pocket watch, which allows you to enter the memories of the dead. Each memory is frozen in time, and you use these snippets to construct the full story—who killed who, who escaped, and so on—using clues that range from obvious (accents, titles) to obscure (social groups).
Whereas most detective games steer you towards a foregone conclusion, Return of the Obra Dinn ($20 on Humble) requires actual deductive reasoning, extrapolating facts from scant evidence until every last crew member’s fate is accounted for.
Dead Cells ($25 on Humble) plays like Castlevania, with one exception: Every time you die, the map rearranges itself. And hey, Dead Cells is hardly the first to combine those two elements, the exploration and boss fights of Castlevania with roguelike randomness, but it’s the one that’s managed to get it most correct. You’re rewarded for every run, unlocking new weapons and skills over time, and it’s one of those rare games where you can feel yourself getting better.
The end-game is a bit of a grind, with unsuccessful runs eventually feeling more like a chore than an adventure—I doubt I’ll ever finish it, personally. But those early hours are fantastic as you try to learn the enemies, and the gimmicks that come with each new level. There are no maps to learn per se, but there are still plenty of patterns to discover, and Dead Cells is great at rewarding trial and error with worthwhile secrets.
Into The Breach
I liked FTL—which can also run on pretty much any laptop—but I loved 2018’s follow-up Into the Breach ($15 on Humble). A miniaturized tactics game, you’re trying to defend humanity from an onslaught of giant bugs one 8-by-8 grid at a time. It’s like chess meets Starship Troopers.
“Tactics game” is a bit of an oversimplification, too. What I really love about Into the Breach is you can see enemy turns ahead of time, giving you the chance to block or even misdirect them. It feels more like a puzzle game, or like chess as played by a grandmaster, always planning multiple steps ahead.
There’s also a minimalist but pulp-fun story penned by Chris Avellone, plus dozens of different unit combinations to experiment with. If you’re looking to fall into a “one more turn” spiral, Into the Breach is set to be your next addiction.
Celeste ($20 on Steam) earned our 2018 Game of the Year prize, and for good reason. It’s an ultra-hard precision platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy, but with a completely different attitude. Where other games take pride in being unbeatable, Celeste goes out of its way to reassure you—You can beat this! You can climb the titular Celeste Mountain! It even provides you with optional assists, like an extra jump, and doesn’t punish you for using them.
Don’t get me wrong though: Celeste is still challenging, especially once you go after the optional collectibles (strawberries) or get into the B- and C-side levels—more difficult versions of the main stages. You can do it, but it’s going to take a lot of perseverance, and that’s fine!
Dusk ($20 on Humble) isn’t as easy to run as the ’90s shooters it’s inspired by—after all, someone got Doom running on an ATM. It’s damn close though, with a GTX 460 as the recommended spec. That’s low enough for this list, I think.
Dusk truly captures that ’90s spirit as well. It’s blisteringly fast, you have a huge arsenal of hard-hitting weapons, enemies explode into gibs, and you collect different-color keycards. All the basics are covered. But it’s the level design that hooked me, going from farms to sewers to factories to mines to cityscapes—and that’s just in the first episode, before it gets really weird. There are a ton of creative arena setups to circle-strafe around, and Dusk even subverts player expectations in some neat ways, a feat I wouldn’t have thought possible for a throwback FPS.
This particular genre revival is growing every year, but for the moment Dusk is the pinnacle.
You play Gris ($17 on Humble) for the art. It’s that simple. With a clean hand-painted style that reminds me of Moebius, it’s a stunning platformer that leads you through one jaw-dropping scene after another, from crumbling ruins to pastel forests and moonlit gardens. Steam tells me that over the course of three hours, I took nearly 200 screenshots. Do the math, and that’s about one per minute.
There’s a loose story of loss and mourning here, conveyed primarily through symbolism and color, but it’s all a bit too ambiguous. As a tone piece and a work of art though it’s incredible, and if you approach it on those terms, if you let it simply wash over you in one sitting, it’s a gorgeous experience.
I called Forager ($20 on Humble) “junk food” in our review and I stand by it—but damn, it’s addictive junk food. Combining elements of survival games with idle games and even Zelda, Forager is a deft genre mashup that manages to wring a lot out of mindlessly harvesting materials and filling up various meters.
Exploration is the key, the bit that kept me coming back. There are 49 islands in Forager, each with a unique point of interest. Some have simple puzzles, others have characters to help, and a few even have dungeons complete with boss battles. You purchase islands one by one, which means there’s a steady stream of new stuff to check out—in addition to new buildings to construct, new items to craft, and so on.
Sure, it’s a mindless way to spend 15 or 20 hours, but it’s hard to deny how deep Forager sinks its hooks, and for the few days I played it I really played it.
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales
Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales ($30 on Humble) is actually the most hardware-intensive game on this list, but the recommended setup is a mere GTX 660 and the minimum is even lower, so I’m including it anyway. Like Sorcery!, it’s an RPG represented in a unique and lo-fi manner, with Thronebreaker structured around The Witcher 3‘s card game Gwent. Battles, drinking contests, and more are all abstracted as a series of card battles and card-based puzzles.
It never gets too challenging, but it’s still a nifty setup. Better yet, it’s wrapped in a grim story that helps illuminate The Witcher‘s universe through the eyes of someone other than Geralt for once. You play as Queen Meve, attempting to navigate the typically bleak political machinations of The Witcher and keep her realm intact. You’ll also need to keep your closest advisers happy, lest they abandon your cause—and your deck.
It’s no Witcher 4 by any means, but CD Projekt did a lot with a little here.
Looking at Factorio ($30 on Humble) screenshots is a bit like looking into the abyss. At best you can pick out a few distinct elements, understand there are train tracks running to and from structures, but for the most part it looks like a complete mess. And hey, maybe one day you’ll reach that level of complexity.
Factorio is, as the name implies, a game about building factories. The goal is to automate a vast chain of production, optimizing the delivery of raw materials and so forth until you’ve created a web of industry from which no human could escape—and by no human I mean you, the person who’s awake at 4AM adjusting conveyor belts. New takes on the idea have started appearing, with Coffee Stain’s Satisfactory translating the idea into the third dimension, but Factorio is still the go-to, the most developed, and the one best equipped to run on your oldest PC thanks to its SimCity 2000-meets-Command-&-Conquer art style.
Ah yes, an old friend. 17 years after release, Planescape: Torment is still one of the all-time classics, and for good reason. Its story tackles philosophy, religion, and other weighty subjects most games steer clear of. It’s sophisticated, even by today’s standards, and is packed with great character moments and memorable sequences.
And while I’ve tried to steer clear of simply listing a dozen classics on this list—after all, they’d run great on underpowered machines—I’ll let Planescape skate by on the fact that the Enhanced Edition ($20 on Steam) is fairly recent. The Enhanced Edition doesn’t make many changes, or at least not many you couldn’t have achieved with mods before, but native widescreen and quality of life improvements to looting and combat are enough to earn my recommendation.
Baldur’s Gate and its sequel are also great choices here, and I’ve heard Obsidian’s modern successor Pillars of Eternity ($40 on Humble) runs pretty smooth on budget machines too.
Night in the Woods
Games don’t really do “slice of life,” but Night in the Woods ($20 on Humble) nails it. The story of Mae, a 20-something cat home from college, Night in the Woods is a perfect encapsulation of that moment between teenager and adulthood, sort of floating around aimlessly, pretending everything’s fine, trying to figure out where you fit into the world and what you should do for the next 40-odd years.
It’s also an eerie portrayal of America’s failing blue-collar class. Mae and her parents live in a coal mining town without a coal mine, where most of the jobs have left and the people along with them. It’s a well-written depiction of a bad situation, and a strong backdrop to Mae’s own story. If you have a high tolerance for reading, I definitely recommend it.
A ruined kingdom, far underground. A brave insect, armed with a needle. This is the setup for Hollow Knight—maybe not my favorite entry in the so-called “Metroidvania” revival, but certainly the largest. It’ll take you upwards of 20 hours just to finish the main story, and then over a year’s worth of free expansions has padded out Hollow Knight ($15 on Humble) even more.
Standard genre tropes apply here. You’ll get a dash move at some point, and unlock better weapons. But it’s really Hollow Knight’s world and world-building that stand above the rest: its unique bug-centric fast travel system, vast cast of weird and unsettling characters, the personality it imbues in its boss battles. It’s a memorable experience, for sure, and downright gorgeous at times.
There’s also a sequel-expansion titled Silksong coming soon, so keep an eye out for that.
I can tell I’m getting old because my childhood is being mined for nostalgia now. But existential fears aside, I had a fantastic time exploring Hypnospace Outlaw ($20 on Humble).
The titular Hypnospace is an Internet you browse while sleeping, and you’re tasked with patrolling it for cybercrimes, which is as silly a premise as you can imagine. There’s a surprising amount of nuance to it though, with subtext commentary about Internet communities, corporate interference and corruption of those organic spaces, and more.
But the real draw is that Hypnospace is a love letter to the early Internet, that period in the mid- to late-’90s where it felt like a website could be anything and everything, before all our amateur reviews and GIF-ridden GeoCities sites were absorbed into a few monolithic sites. I remember it as a period of discovery, people experimenting with this new medium in weird and exciting ways, and Hypnospace Outlaw captures that vibe perfectly—complete with dad rock jingles like “Gray’s Peak.”
Yoku’s Island Express
Sometimes, all you need to know is the hook. In Yoku’s Island Express ($20 on Humble) the hook is simple: Pinball plus Metroidvania. It’s another one of our favorite games of 2018.
You play as a small beetle, the titular Yoku, who’s taken over an island’s post office role. Far from just delivering packages though, the bulk of your journey will be spent uncovering an ancient prophecy and saving the island’s denizens from disaster.
And you’ll do so by bouncing around the world like an enormous pinball table. An enormous, incredibly elaborate pinball table, with flippers popping out of the ground to launch you high in the air, or lengthy ramps that whisk you away to new areas. It’s just delightful, though be warned that this game requires a low-end graphics card with at least 2GB of RAM to run.
There was a point where I didn’t know whether Cuphead ($20 on Humble) would actually release, and if it did whether it’d be any good. Sure, it looked and sounded great, but would that be enough?
Luckily Cuphead plays as good as it looks. Okay, not quite as good as it looks—this is one of the most stunning games ever made, artistically. But if you want a tight bullet-hell game, Cuphead has you covered, and the faux-Max Fleischer aesthetic is what puts it over the top. There’s nothing quite like facing two boxing frogs who then turn into a slot machine and spit coins at you, all while a frantic big band soundtrack blares in the background.
Baba is You
Baba is You ($15 on Humble) is one of my favorite puzzle games of 2019. The rules are simple—in fact, they’re written right in the game itself. Every puzzle features blocks of text, laying out how everything works: Baba is You, Water is Hot, Rock is Push, and so on. The text can be moved though, rearranged so these blocks create different (more beneficial) rules. For instance, change “Baba is You” to “Rock is You” and you’ll now control the rock’s movement.
It’s an intuitive premise but leads to dozens of satisfying puzzles, gradually introducing new words like “And” or “Pull” to add more complexity. Some puzzles will take you minutes. Others will take days, as you mutter nonsense like “Crab is Win” and “Love is Push,” mulling it over in the back of your head until you hit that crucial a-ha moment. I love it.
Crusader Kings II
Paradox’s grand strategy games are a good choice for someone who wants to install one game, then play it for hundreds of hours. Spanning centuries of history, of warfare and political maneuvering and religious conflict, there’s a lot to dig into.
Crusader Kings II ($40 on Humble) is probably your best entry point despite its age. Taking a more personality-driven approach to history, you’ll play as a feudal leader, as low as a Count or as high as an Emperor. What you do with that power? Up to you. Foster deranged sons, send your daughters off to your enemies, assassinate your brother, marry your horse—it’s one of the most elaborate sandboxes ever devised. If history’s not your bag though, you could always try Stellaris ($40 on Humble). Some of the same ideas, meets Star Trek.
Paradox’s games require graphics cards, albeit particularly ancient and low-powered ones. We’ve coaxed Crusader Kings II into running on some newer laptops with integrated Intel graphics. The beloved Civilization V ($30 on Humble) is another strategy game that runs well pretty much any laptop with a Core i3 or better.
Any of the Zachtronics puzzle oeuvre could probably go on this list—SpaceChem, Shenzhen I/O, Opus Magnum, and probably even Infinifactory.
TIS-100 ($7 on Steam) is one of my favorites though, and about as low-impact as you can get. Designed to feel like programming an early computer, TIS-100 does the usual logistics-centric Zachtronics puzzles by way of faux-Assembly code, complete with an out-of-game manual that I heavily recommend printing out and keeping nearby. Hell, go full ‘80s and stash it in a three-ring binder.
It’s taken more than four years for The Banner Saga to wrap up, and honestly I think it was too long. More than your standard episodic release but less than standalone, those who started The Banner Saga trilogy on day one were likely hard-pressed to remember all the nuances of the early games by the time the third part came around.
But they’re all released now, and thus it’s a great time to jump in. The tale of a world in a crisis, humanity on the run, The Banner Saga has you leading a band of refugees across sweeping plains and through winding mountains, with some beautiful Disney-esque artwork to show it all off. These walking sections are punctuated by choices—break up a fight, explore that suspicious path, et cetera—that determine how many of your followers live and die. Then there’s a whole turn-based tactics side of the game for the larger battles, with a deeply satisfying combat system that takes ages to master.
Now that you can just burn through all three back-to-back and see the whole story? It’s a great time to get started. You can find Banner Saga and Banner Saga 2 on Humble for $20 each, and Banner Saga 3 for $25.
Rusty Lake series
Those who’ve read the site for any length of time probably know I’m in love with the Rusty Lake series ($7.62 bundle on Steam), a collection of surreal point-and-click games that…well, it’s hard to explain. Take Victorian Era aesthetics, add in a dash of Wes Anderson, and then make it all very, very gory and you’ve got an approximation of what’s going on here.
But it’s more than just surface-level weirdness. The Rusty Lake series is grappling with some deep themes in among the various find-the-key puzzles—themes of loneliness and depression, love, death, religion and the occult. You can get lost in all the symbolism here, and I strongly suggest you do. Or just play them because they’re pretty damn solid (albeit short) point-and-clicks. That’s fine too.
Whispers of a Machine
Adventure games have been quietly moving in some interesting directions these last few years. Take 2018’s Unavowed for example, where celebrated developer Dave Gilbert wrote an entire cast of BioWare-style companion characters who accompanied the player two at a time, a thoroughly modern idea that belied its retro look.
I enjoyed Whispers of a Machine ($15 on Humble) even more though. A cyberpunk detective story, it doles out different cybernetic powers to the player depending on their dialogue choices. Everyone gets the “Forensic Scanner,” which picks up trace biological data in the environment. But a more assertive detective might learn to control people’s thoughts, while more empathetic choices result in the ability to mimic a person’s voice and appearance. These powers are used in limited situations—as puzzle solutions basically—but it’s a creative twist on the typical inventory-based puzzles and enhances the underlying whodunit.
Cosmic Express ($10 on Humble) starts easy enough: Lay down train tracks, pick up the waiting passengers, and deliver them to the exit.
This fantastic puzzle game quickly gets nefarious though, introducing multiple alien passenger types, worm holes that warp you and your tracks across the screen, and all sorts of other nightmares that get in the way of going from point A to point B efficiently.
I’m not ashamed to say I haven’t finished this one and maybe never will, but it’s a charming little game with some fiendish mindbenders.
It’s just Picross. That’s it. Pictopix ($7 on Humble) is just Picross.
It’s arguably the best Picross game on PC, though. I’d already spent dozens of hours with its original slate of puzzles, and then a 2018 update added in around 100 new puzzles, some of them 40×40 grids that took me hours to solve. Steam tells me I’ve put over 100 hours into Pictopix total, and I loved every hair-tearing minute of that binge, simple as it may be. Checking now, it looks like there have been even more free updates since (including a randomly generated “Endless” mode), so maybe it’s time for me to go back—if I can find the hours to spare.
Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!
Okay, maybe your PC can’t run The Witcher 3, but it can probably run this stripped-down RPG courtesy of Inkle. Based on the early ‘80s Fighting Fantasy adventure gamebooks of the same name, Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! ($24 on Steam) is a four-part quest for the Crown of Kings, stolen by the Archmage of Mampang Fortress.
Like Inkle’s 80 Days, the key to Sorcery is hundreds and hundreds of small, seemingly insignificant decisions which add up into a unique story of your own. Go left or go right—whichever you choose, you’ve already split the story. Some of these decisions really are inconsequential. Others, you might not see the consequences until hours later.
And mechanics aside, Sorcery is a delight to read. One of the best pieces of interactive fiction I’ve ever played, for sure.
A Case of Distrust
Our fourth bit of interactive fiction on this list, because the genre’s perfect for low-spec laptops, A Case of Distrust ($15 on Steam) is more traditional than Sorcery or The Banner Saga or Night in the Woods: Big paragraphs of text, laid out simply. Set in the 1920s in San Francisco, A Case of Distrust has you interrogating suspects and countering their fraudulent claims with evidence as you try to piece together a murder case.
Pulp setup, and it doesn’t stray too far from the usual film noir tropes, but it works thanks to some stunning artwork accompaniment. The whole game is done in monochromatic silhouettes, an homage to Saul Bass’s film posters and title sequences, and it looks fantastic, even if the majority of the game is still just reading blocks of description.
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