Written by

Chris Gonzales


Chris Gonzales

As the wackiness that is 2021 seems it will continue unabated, we find that there’s nothing more centering than turning off the outside world and hopping into a good ol’ video game.

We find ourselves turning to gaming on our iPhones and iPads more and more of late instead of powering up a dedicated console, so we thought it’d be fun to assemble a list of the best iOS/iPadOS games we’ve been playing.

Let’s go!

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The List

Click any of the titles below to jump to their listing.

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Slay the Spire »


Slay the Spire is a roguelike deckbuilder that has you collecting cards to build a powerful deck as you ascend each floor of The Spire, wiping out all enemies and increasingly difficult bosses along the way — or at least surviving as long as you can, because death is permanent and you’ll be sent back to the very beginning to try again…and again…and again…

Since you obtain new cards as you progress, you often have to come up with new strategies on the fly, and you’ll need to be brutal about the cards you remove/decline in order to keep your deck synergy strong. While each death is a game over, you do still make some progression in other ways just by attempting runs, such as unlocking new characters, relics, and cards you can use in future runs.


One of the main draws of this game is its replayability, since The Spire’s layout changes every time you climb it, along with other procedurally generated elements, as explained by this mobile game reviewer on Instagram:

Every run starts with a pre-determined deck of cards, but along the way you add and remove cards, find relics, buy upgrades and otherwise change the deck until no two runs will ever be the same.

Many games claim this, but Slay the Spire actually succeeds. Every card is viable. Every mechanic can have a deck built around it. There are no absolute bad choices.

This is one of those games where, after many, many hours of repeatedly getting defeated and sent back to the start, you’ll feel an almost masochistic need to keep trying, if only to get a little further than last time.




Dead Cells »

($9* — see note below)

If you asked us to point to one game on our list and say, “This is what iOS gaming can be,” Dead Cells would be it.

With merciless try-die-repeat action and lush pixel art visuals, Dead Cells is a fast-paced action-platformer in the vein of Castlevania but with a rogue-lite twist (putting it in the “roguevania” genre). That is, when you die — yes, that’s a when, not an if — you get to keep some of your upgrades when you’re sent back to the beginning.

Every time you die, you lose all unspent “cells” you’ve collected and have to start over at square one, EXCEPT for any permanent weapon/skill upgrades and/or new areas you managed to unlock that will help you on future runs. You will also unlock new sections of the procedurally generated levels, with enemies and items randomly placed each time you start over.

The game starts off almost impossibly difficult, but by the end you’ll have figured out enemies’ patterns and set up your build well enough to exhiliratingly reach the endgame and finally defeat the big bad 😎

One thing we like is that there’s a lot of flexibility in how you can navigate the castle to reach the end. You can explore every nook and cranny on one playthrough, then rush through the shortest possible path the next. There’s no one way to do it.

On top of intense action, eye-catching visuals, and high replayability factor, the game’s music and sound design are also top-notch. This is truly an experience you don’t want to miss. If you’ve got an MFi-certified controller to play with (we’re partial to the DualShock 4 ourselves), then all the better.


* Of course, right after we published this guide, the game has gone on sale for $5 (down from $9) AND they’ve released “The Bad Seed” DLC pack, which runs an additional $4. So if you’ve never bought this game, right now (as of March 30th, 2021) you can essentially pay the regular price and get the expansion content for “free.”



Genshin Impact »

(Free to play, with various IAPs for “Crystals” and such)

Speaking of playing with a controller, the hottest thing in mobile gaming — Genshin Impact — got even better when it added controller support about a month ago.

For the total uninitiated, Genshin Impact is a free-to-play open-world action RPG à la Breath of the Wild, except anime-styled. You get to explore an enormous world map, hunt and battle monsters, complete dungeon quests, climb up to high places and glide your way back down, cook meals, forage for supplies to craft items and weapons with, and enjoy a compelling single-player story experience.


Along the way, you’ll amass a collection of characters from an ever-growing cast — all of whom are voice acted! — that either unlock through story progression or can be obtained through the game’s gacha system. Up to four can be in your party at a given time, and you can switch between them at will.


What we still can’t get over is how gorgeous the game is. Every environment you encounter, be it city or wilderness, is so lush and vibrant. This world is a real joy to explore, with visual treats around every corner. Even the game’s music is a pleasure.




Guardian Tales »

(Free to play, with various IAPs for premium characters, currency, etc)

Guardian Tales is a retro-styled action-adventure fantasy RPG with plenty of nostalgic joy for those who grew up playing the top-down 8-bit JRPGs of old.

You get to summon and collect dozens of heroes, solve puzzles to access special areas, protect the kingdom from evil invaders and save the world (what else?), build a little town of your own, and enjoy plenty of lighthearted humor and references to real-world pop culture along the way.




Legends of Runeterra »

(Free to play, with various IAPs for in-game coins)

Apple’s 2020 Game of the Year was Legends of Runeterra, and we couldn’t agree with their decision more. Until we get more time with the just-released Magic: The Gathering Arena, we can confidently say this is the CCG strategy game for iOS right now, beating out even the classic Hearthstone.

Set in the world of League of Legends, Runeterra has you building and customizing decks made up of League champions, creatures, and spells, which you can then use to play against other players online (or the game’s own AI) in matches where smart strategy and a healthy dose of luck will determine who comes out on top.

In addition to engaging your wits and planning skills, this is simply a beautiful game to play, with plenty of devastating combos, dazzling effects, and thrilling back-and-forth struggles to keep you coming back for more.




SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom — Rehydrated »


Believe it or not, the SpongeBob SquarePants game is one of the best 3D platformers on iOS right now. This is not shovelware, friends. In fact, it takes me right back to the kinds of games my dad and I would play together back in the PS2 days. Which makes sense, since it’s a remake of the original 2003 console game.

It’s not that it’s the type of game that will blow your mind or anything, but I defy you to play Rehydrated and not have a goofy grin on your face. I do recommend playing with a controller though, as the on-screen controls can be difficult to contend with in later levels.




Unruly Heroes »


Inspired by the famous 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West (as so many things have been) Unruly Heroes is a 2D action-adventure where you control a part of four unlikely heroes — Sanzang the wise, Wukong the fearless monkey, Kihong the greedy pig, and Sandmonk the sensitive brute — as you kung-fu and puzzle-solve your way across a jaw-droppingly lush hand-painted world. (That was a lot of hypens, phew.)


Each of the charming, personality-loaded heroes has a unique set of abilities to help you overcome obstacles and defeat enemies in their own ways, and you can switch between any of them on the fly as needed, with new level mechanics introduced slowly throughout the game to keep things fresh.


Given the amount of polish on display here, I can’t believe this game only costs two bucks. (As of publication, anyway. It did just release a few weeks ago so maybe it’s a special launch price?)




Monster Hunter Stories »


It’s not a very new game compared to others mentioned here, but given that it just updated for the first (and only) time in two years to support newer iPhones, Monster Hunter Stories has earned a place on this list.

If you’re like us and wish there were a full-fledged Pokémon title for iOS, this is about as close as it gets. You collect, hatch, and befriend an array of monsters, join them in turn-based battles (of the ‘rock-paper-scissors’ type), explore the world, take on a wealth of side quests…you get the idea.

It’s a really fun game with lots of depth and monster customization to keep you entertained for hours and hours.


Note: The game’s sequel is slated to launch worldwide on July 9th, 2021, so we wouldn’t blame you for holding off until that comes out, although we feel that’s plenty enough time to get your money’s worth of enjoyment out of this game.



SteamWorld Quest »


From the makers of the popular SteamWorld Heist comes SteamWorld Quest, a dungeon-crawler-slash-deck-builder that doesn’t only combine game genres, but also story ones. Imagine a fantasy fairy tale that takes place in a steampunk robot world, and you’ll maybe understand what I mean.

In Quest, you lead a party of unique and likeable heroes through a whimsically hand-drawn world that never takes itself too seriously. It plays a lot like an old-school JRPG but with a fun turn-based card battle mechanic that keeps you on your toes without burning you out with difficulty or over-repetition.

As one would expect from this development studio, the game boasts a very high level of polish and humorous charm, and we know you’ll be delighted by the experience.




The Gardens Between »


The Gardens Between is a relaxing adventure-puzzle game where the flow of time becomes your main puzzle-solving tool. In fact, time is the one thing you actually have control over as the two characters — adventurous Arina and shy Frendt — explore a series of surreal garden islands together.


From the game’s description:

Arina, a headstrong girl, and Frendt, a boy wise beyond his years, fall into a series of vibrant, dreamlike island gardens peppered with everyday objects that hold a special significance to the duo. Together they embark on an emotional journey that examines the significance of their friendship: the memories they’ve built, what must be let go, and what should never be left behind.

Designed as an homage to the enduring power of friendship, The Gardens Between places you in control of not the characters themselves, but the force which will change and shape their relationship: time. In the mysterious realm they find themselves transported to, cause and effect are malleable and time flows in all directions. Solve puzzles to reach the apex of each isle and light up constellations of memories, illuminating threads of a bittersweet narrative.


The game’s dreamlike islands are often littered with enormous everyday objects influenced by the close friends’ shared experiences — one example being an island full of oversized ’80s-era gadgets like VCRs, game controllers, keypads, and vintage computers.

As you manipulate time back and forth, the boy and girl will move forward and backward along the island path, interacting with their environment in interestingly mutable ways.

From the game’s wiki page:

For example, the player may need to have Arina work forward in time to grab a sphere of light for the lantern, move time backward for her to place it on a jumping cube, and then continue to move forward pass a fog bridge to recollect the cube later. The player cannot move time forward or past a point where either Arina or Frendt cannot progress. Separately, Frendt’s ability to interact with devices that control the flow of time for objects in the level may be needed to create paths previously blocked, bring falling light flowers into close proximity to Arina’s paths, or similar motions. Other solutions may require lateral thinking that recognizing how the various time stream manipulations can work.

This is one of those games that stands tall as a true work of art, with a beautifully touching story about friendship and growing up, an array of lush environments to explore, and an appropriately ambient soundtrack.




Hyper Light Drifter »


Hyper Light Drifter

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 Preston’s congenital heart disease. You play as a “Drifter” 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 — 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. There’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.


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If you need a few more game recommendations, the 2019 “Favorite Games” list I wrote over at The Sweet Setup still stands and has some fantastic Apple Arcade titles to boot. The only overlap between that article and this one involves Dead Cells and Hyper Light Drifter. Well, I did also reuse the hero image (with some modifications).