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Free Steam games that blew us away in 2019 so far

Back in the day when Steam was just a fledgling, Valve's digital storefront only featured a handful of games from the developer itself. Almost two decades later, Steam is unrecognizable from that early form, its labyrinthine listings guaranteed (probably!) to satisfy even the most voracious gamer. When you sift through the good, bad, and downright awful, you can find some gems, though. And yes, some of them are even free. 

Shooters, adventures, puzzles, role-playing, card collecting, solo, squad-based, open world, side-scrolling: the choices are bewildering. With new titles being added at a blink-and-you'll-miss-it pace. The past couple of years have seen an unprecedented surge in the quality of free games, particularly with the likes of Fortnite and Apex Legends redefining the benchmarks. Surprisingly, there are some extraordinary single player titles as well. What follows is an extremely subjective listing of some of the most impressive free releases, expansions, and relaunches on Steam in 2019.

Armajet, for breathless shooter action

Armajet, the impressive, immersive side-scrolling 2.5-D shooter, finally left its lengthy early-access phase and launched globally on Oct. 8. Its cross-platform and crossplay features means you can pick up your PC game on Android and iOS devices, and vice versa. There have been many changes in the game from two years ago, when the beta was launched, including arenas that look more exciting and various gameplay improvements. 

The gameplay itself is a sequence of breathless but skill-based multiplayer battles, where two squads of four face off against each other for four-minute rounds. It is a great game for anyone who loves shooters and craves short adrenaline fests. Though originally envisaged as a mobile game, you'd be at an advantage playing on a larger screen. Best part: it is new-gamer friendly with its intuitive controls, yet complex enough to provide shooter veterans a challenge, with customizations and specializations aplenty.

Any gamer who has queued at the server gates will appreciate the promised short wait times, with bot AIs filling in for absent squadmates. Your games, progressions, customizations, friends, and so on are synced across devices. At present there are four maps (jungle, snow, volcano, and space) and over 700 weapon modifications, with promises of more to come.

Gravitas, for those who wish Portal was free on Steam

Still get misty eyed thinking about Portal and Portal 2? Well, there might be a solution for that. In August this year, an indie developer called Galaxy Shark Studios gave us Gravitas, which channels Valve's puzzle masterpiece in the best ways possible. This single player, first person puzzle-platformer is a short game, but immensely satisfying nonetheless. The player is called upon to navigate through the Gallery of Refined Gravity under the tutelage of the (evil genius?) Curator, using their gravity-bending powers to keep life and limb intact. Sound familiar yet?

If there is one thing that Galaxy Shark have got right, it is the humor — the snarky digs from the Curator are very reminiscent of Portal villain GLaDOS. There is a temptation to write Gravitas off as a Portal clone, but a few levels of gameplay later, you'll see depths that may not have been obvious before. Perhaps "tribute" is a kinder way of putting it.

Atma, for a stunning solo fantasy adventure

Atma is another one for the lone-wolf gamers, a fantasy adventure with some artwork so stunning that it compelled PC Gamer to describe it as a "fine jewel." An immersive story, deep character progression, and multiple endings are all brought together with hi-res pixel art and animations. If there is a drawback, it is the length (too short). 

The story is the usual quest-based fantasy formula, with a choice of saving the world or saving one's lover. There are definite hints of Eastern mythology in the music, in the gorgeous (if it's not clear yet, the art is just beautiful!) settings, and in the use of mantras to destroy enemies and obstacles. Atma's gameplay is not on the more nuanced end of the scale, but even so, this one is worth having for the impressive visuals and the interesting story. It is a game that you might want to sit down with on a quiet afternoon.

Maelstrom, for gamers who like their battles at sea

For those who like their battle royales at sea, Maelstrom went free-to-play on Steam in September this year (from a $20 Early Access price tag). Set upon the Abyssal Ocean, in a "grim fantasy world of leviathans, warships and magic," you find yourself pitched in challenging battles with other naval super powers or with monsters. Oh, and yes, there is treasure to be had and loot to be plundered, which can go into upgrading your ship and crew, so that you can ultimately emerge as the most formidable force at sea.

Developers Gunpowder Games say that the game can be enjoyed to its "fullest extent" without buying additional power-ups. There are no loot boxes, though of course, you could always spend some cash for boosts, cosmetics, gold, and a battle pass. For those who did shell out the $20 to buy the Early Access game, the developers have a host of goodies, including a seasonal battle pass and 10,000 gunpowder (the in-game premium currency), plus all ships unlocked and three mates each from human, dwarf, and orc races.

Destiny 2, because it's now free on Steam

Since Oct. 1, Destiny 2 has been free to play on Steam. This new development coincided with the game moving from Battle.net to Steam and the unveiling of a new expansion pack, Shadowkeep. While players need to pay for that, the base game, Destiny 2: New Light, which is essentially all of the content from its first year, including the Curse Of Osiris and Warmind expansions, plus a few other additions. To help new players get in the door, Bungie has revived the original Destiny's opening sequence, which will now be how all new characters begin.

The online multiplayer FPS, known for its cinematic feel, was originally launched in September 2017, famously described as "Destiny, with much less bullshit." You play as a Guardian of the Last City of humanity, keeping dark forces at bay, playing either cooperatively or competitively. If you want to go it alone, there is the option of a single player campaign as well. When the game migrated to Steam, players were also able to import their Guardians, game progress, and Battle.net purchases. So no matter if you're a lapsed veteran or a green rookie, Destiny 2 has never been more ready for you.

Warframe, for its massive, open worlds

Unless you've been living under the equivalent of a gaming rock, Warframe ought to ring at least a tiny bell. This acclaimed and admired cooperative free-to-play third person action game continues to impress, despite being about six years old. As with any enduring online multiplayer, developer Digital Extremes has kept engagement high with a steady flow of new things to do. This year has seen a new frame, Saint of Altra, the fastest yet; improved game mechanics; and even a musical minigame.

In Warframe, you are a member of the ancient warrior race the Tenno, with your own Warframes (power armor) that can be equipped with special abilities, weapons, and navigations. These Warframes are essential to participating in and completing missions in Warframe's massive open world. There are over 30 frames available, each uniquely customizable; 300-plus weapons, again modifiable as per your needs; and well over a dozen futuristic worlds to explore, either alone or with a group of buddies.

Shakes and Fidget Remastered, for blending satire and RPG

Shakes and Figdet Remastered is the remastered (who'd have guessed!) version of the clever satirical RPG from 2016. Though it isn't technically a 2019 game given that it was launched in November 2018, developer Playa Games has since continued to add new content, live events, and more over the past months. The game has also won awards, and generally been all kinds of impressive.

Shakes and Fidget has an endearing comics-style artwork and loads of humor. You essentially customize your own comic book hero to climb the Hall of Fame ladder and gain glory. There are eight races to choose from, with five classes, along with thousands of magical items and weapons. You can play solo or go multiplayer; either way, you go on quests, have adventures, collect loot, pit your wits against other players in the PvP arena, and more. Over 50 million people have played the game in less than a year, so why not join them? After all, it's free.

Neverwinter, for those who wish the BioWare classic was free on Steam

If you cut your RPG teeth on BioWare's classic Neverwinter Nights, then this one is for you. If you didn't, but consider yourself an RPG aficionado, this one is still for you. Neverwinter is a free, online Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy role-player, comprising heroic quests, epic combat, and deep character building, set in the Forgotten Realms universe. The latest addition to the story is Neverwinter Uprising, its 17th module, featuring a new playable race called the Gith, who are locked in conflict with the Illithid in the Undermountain. Players can ally with the Giths or create their own Gith character.

Developer Arg Games also promises "one of the most exciting, most challenging encounters" at the end of its journey, facing off against the old Forgotten Realms villain Halaster Blackcloak in a ten-gamer endgame trial. "Just prepare for a plethora of pain," they add, which of course is music to the ears of any dedicated RPG enthusiast.

Paladins, for sheer world-building joy

Paladins has wowed gamers and critics alike, chalking up 25 million-plus players and pocketing multiple awards. In September this year, Hi-Rez Studios, Paladins' publisher, announced that crossplay would now be possible on the PS4 with other platforms, namely, PC, Xbox One, and Switch. Alongside a fresh stream of new content, crossplay has given Paladins a banner year in 2019.

Paladins' various game modes pit squads of five Champions against each other. The Pirate's Treasure update, apart from the pirate-themed cosmetics, comprises some balance changes for some Champions (Dredge and Fernando, particularly), a new variant of the Onslaught game mode, and many fixes and tweaks. It adds to Paladins' already rich universe, which allows players to endlessly customize their Champions, who can be humans, goblins, elves, or even dragons. The game is fully free to play; only cosmetic goodies are purchasable with real-world cash.

Backbone: Prologue, for its atmospheric noir setting

Backbone is set to launch in 2020, but gamers can have a taste of the first chapter with the Prologue, now available for free. It is a stunning, single player noir detective-adventure game, with some sublime writing and exquisite art. Set in a dystopian Vancouver, you play as Howard Lotor, a private detective. Howard may be a racoon, but he has all the swagger of a straight-talking, greatcoat-wearing, cynical noir sleuth. Using point-and-click gameplay, Howard traverses Vancouver's walled city to follow clues, interrogate witnesses, and unravel the case.

The film noir inspiration is obvious from the game's art and animation, which has been "handcrafted frame by frame" and modeled on Vancouver's actual streets. Hi-res pixel art blends seamlessly with 3D effects like rain, fog, and city lights, all set within a backdrop of an original doom jazz soundtrack. Overall, it is dark and atmospheric, and if the prologue is anything to go by, it will be an outstanding game. Launch might be months away, but Backbone is already stacking up the accolades.

Mushroom Cats, for daring to be bizarre

The year 2019 seems to have been a good one for single player games on Steam, particularly those that are visually stunning. To add to the growing list is Mushroom Cats, which is is about as quirky as it sounds. It's enough to make you think the developer may have been toying with some mood-altering fungi themselves.

Anyhow, this short game — and by short, we mean a few minutes — is about putting hats on cats. These are no ordinary cats. These are Mushroom Cats, who live on the magic Toadstool that is tall enough to reach the sky and large enough to be the cats' houses. Like any other cats, these Mushroom Cats love the sun, but they also grind cloud flour to make cloud cakes, play musical instruments, and listen to the ocean. (Ocean? Don't ask!)

But there is a twist: winter is nigh, and the cats have lost their hats! Can you find the hats and put them on the cats? See, we told you there must have been shrooms involved. Having said that, do stop by to admire the cute artwork and pick up some Steam achievements for completing the game. If the game amuses you, check out the creator's other quirky work.

Mythgard, for an early peak into a stunning CCG-in-the-making

Steam isn't short of impressive strategy games, and Mythgard is a worthy contender for that list. A collectible card strategy title of seemingly limitless possibilities, it is fast-paced and visually appealing. Breathtaking visual landscapes bring mythical beasts like dragons and deities into modern, or even futuristic, urban landscapes, creating an unsettling blend of fantasy and reality. 

The open beta of Mythgard launched in September this year and is expected to last till March 2020, with a mid-season balance update expected in November. The gameplay pits gods against mortals, cutting-edge tech against magic, jets against dragons, on a battle board that is unique to the game.There are PvE and PvP modes, as well as a single player option; a tournament mode is expected to be added in the future. The developer, Rhino Games, promises that all cards in the game can be earned through play. People on the mailing lists also receive seasonal freebies.