Turns out Animal Crossing isn’t the only relaxing game out there!
It’s been a crazy couple of months in the world, what with COVID-19 causing what is essentially a global state of emergency and locking us all in our houses for the foreseeable future, but Nintendo has thrown gamers a lifeline by releasing one of the most relaxing video games known to humanity, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, for us all to get lost into. Animal Crossing isn’t everyone’s preferred way to relax, though, and so members of the Doublejump team took a moment to have a chat about their favourite games to play when they need to take their mind off real life. Enjoy the read, and let us know if our recommendations help you find something new to relax with!
Ben: Katamari Damacy
Much like slime YouTube videos, there’s something about Katamari Damacy (or more specifically, its modern re-release Katamari Damacy: ReRoll, which is on something other than PS2) that just scratches a deep, primal itch. Getting to witness all the chaos, all the insanity of modern life be rolled up into a beautiful ball is the sort of satisfaction you rarely get to experience in video games. While the levels are timed, it’s usually a very generous limit, and it never really feels like pressure: you learn and discover all the little quirks and secrets of the various areas as you play, and “winning” never felt like the drive. It was all about the experience and the creation of your katamari: made concrete by the fact that every katamari you construct becomes a feature of the night sky you are trying to rebuild. It’s funny, it’s engaging, and it almost feels like a meditative experience at times.
Also the soundtrack is absolutely bangin’. Put it on streaming services already, Namco.
Cai: Burnout: Paradise Remastered
There is little that can be more calming than driving around, entirely focused on one task yet handing over to muscle memory. Turn on a tune, hands on the wheel and just… drive. You know you can’t get distracted on the roads, so you don’t. Any other problems or tasks take a back seat, pun fully intended. Of course, driving in reality poses all sorts of other risks and can be plenty stressful by itself. You run the risk of an accident, an empty petrol tank, getting pulled over, and of course, there’s those pesky speed limits. Driving in a video game however, means you can go wild and if something goes wrong, simply hit restart and go again.
There are many driving games that can harness this meditative state, but for my money, Burnout Paradise: Remastered is the best of them. The music is catchy, varied and extensive, the scenery is beautiful but not distracting and the island is large enough to get lost in but not so big that you can’t remember the routes. The races, demolition derbies and rallies are all good fun too, of course, but when you really want to just wind down after a long day, nothing beats getting in the driver’s seat and just gunning it around Paradise.
Cav: Euro Truck Simulator 2
It started as a bit of harmless nostalgia. When I first heard of SCS Software’s Euro Truck Simulator 2 back in 2014, it seemed like a nice way to have a virtual potter around the UK, where I grew up. I downloaded the demo, expecting maybe 4-5 hours of inoffensive entertainment before I uninstalled it and got on with my life.
Six years, several hundred thousand kilometres logged and close to a hundred fully-staffed garages across Europe later, I still haven’t gotten bored. Euro Truck Simulator 2 (and its subsequently-released counterpart, American Truck Simulator) capture the zen of long-distance driving, without the stress and aching joints. What on paper should be boring becomes downright meditative, as you watch the landscape subtly but satisfyingly change country to country. SCS is a master at encapsulating the essence of a country in a necessarily condensed form, and as it expands the game with a steady stream of DLC it just gets better and better at it.
If it were just the hauling, Euro Truck would simply be a nice, meditative thing to play. The real magic sauce, however, is the business-building layer going on in the background. As you buy and upgrade extra garages and trucks and hire new staff to use them, so increases your income and earnings. While the early stages are about driving as efficiently as possible, scraping and saving your euros day-to-day, you eventually reach a point where you have the funds to concentrate more on exploring, and a whole other side to the game opens up.
If you told me in 2010 that the most satisfying gaming experience I’d have that decade was going to be a series of truck driving sims, I’d have directed you to the nearest drug addiction clinic. As it turns out, sometimes a good, hard trucking is all you need to take the edge off.
George: Civilization V
Civilization V is just like any other Civilization title: you take the reins of a famous historical empire like the English, the Greeks or the Huns, and guide them through all the stages of human evolution, from the ancient era right through to the Information Age. A single game has the ability to run for an hour or a week, depending on its settings, and how you lead your empire is completely up to you. You can choose to become a superpower through diplomacy, culture, or good old fashioned warfare – there’s something there to suit any player and any mood, and that makes it a great pick for a relaxing game.
Civilisation V does have a reputation for being extremely difficult and thus suited to players looking for a challenge, but I would argue that the most relaxing fun you can have in a video game is setting the difficulty all the way down to easy, choosing ten or more computer players and just going on a global conquest. I’ve clocked many an hour with my Mongolian Horde, jumping from continent to continent and wiping out any resistance to my glorious rule. Some might say that putting the game on easy mode ruins the challenge, but that’s what makes the game so damn relaxing: you’re free to build as many Wonders as you want without worrying about the AI rushing to beat you; you’re free to pursue world peace if that’s your goal; or – and this is my favourite part – you’re free to drop all the nuclear warheads you want… with zero political backlash.
If you don’t have the quick reaction times needed to be good at a first-person shooter or a MOBA, this may just be one of the best ways to let off some steam.
Yes, I’m serious, The series that’s caused more broken controllers than most others, the one that’s bred quite possibly the most negative subreddit in history… that’s my absolute go-to when it comes time to relax. FIFA is better than any other game I’ve tried – and I’ve tried a whole hell of a lot of them – at monopolising my focus, taking me completely out of the real world and into the game: whether I’m building my squads on Ultimate Team, showing AC Milan’s horrendously incompetent board how to rebuild properly in a Career Mode, or bringing Melbourne Victory from the doldrums of English football to UEFA Champions League winners with Joao Felix and Kylian Mbappe leading the line (it takes a few minutes to set up, but I like to move the entire A-League into League Two and start from there), it’s a game that demands my focus.
Admittedly, I’m never completely relaxed when I’m playing FIFA, but if something’s making me need to relax, disconnecting from it and focusing entirely on something else is the way to go.
John: The Simpsons: Hit & Run
Playing Hit & Run is like booting up a buffet of prime The Simpsons episodes that, just like the actual show, I know like the back of my hand. It’s the exact same sort of feel-good chill-out comfort food except it’s been infused into a solid GTA clone that really sends my brain to another planet while I’m playing. The driving model is still so wonderfully fragile and I always forget how much of a collectathon it is, too. It’s a booster shot of sitcom and childhood gaming nostalgia rolled up into a single package.
Sure my old disc copy is scuffed up as heck, which means constant bugs, and the first memory card slot doesn’t work anymore. My PS2 sounds like it has some sort of lung disease whenever it’s running and the ancient AV cables create some sort of constant buzzing sound unless I have them plugged in just right. Frankly, I’m just terrified the entire console will just explode into black plastic shrapnel at any moment… But damn is The Simpsons: Hit & Run the exact right mood whenever I need it.
Kristian: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3
I was tempted to choose Clone Hero, the fan-made Guitar Hero game for PC. While that is probably my most-played game as of late, there’s one game I can always fall back on whenever I’m in a gaming rut: I still have my PlayStation 2 set up at my gaming station, and that’s so that I can put on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 in a pinch. I have played so much of the game – hundreds, if not thousands of hours – that my hands are acclimated to playing the game with a PS2 controller, and I am prone to getting blisters if I play it on another console.
Unlike a lot of early-era PS2 games, the gameplay still holds up incredibly well almost 20 years later, thanks to incredibly sharp and polished game design – even more so than its predecessors – on top of well-designed levels. The soundtrack, featuring a wonderful blend of rock, punk and hip-hop, perfectly encapsulates skateboarding culture and caps off one of the best games of the 2000s.
Over the past decade, the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise has struggled to replicate the success of its heyday, with 2015’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 a critical and commercial disaster. Activision’s license to the franchise expired in that year, and although the last release was the free-to-play mobile game Skate Jam, it is unclear whether the series will be returning to consoles anytime soon. However, as long as my copy of THPS3 continues to work, I’m not overly concerned.
Lucas: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords
When I’m looking for a game to relax with, I’m not looking for relaxation in the Animal Crossing/Stardew Valley sense of the term: I’m looking for a compelling story, fun gameplay and of course, the ability to choose a sweet character portrait. When you add the phenomenal Restored Content mod, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (herein KoTOR 2) ticks all of those boxes and more. With a massive ensemble of characters, colourful backgrounds and the ever-looming darkness of the Sith hunting you down as only the bad guys can, KoTOR 2 is a game that I can constantly go back to just to enjoy the adventure – even if it did need a bit of help from modders to reach its full potential.
There’s an immersiveness to KoTOR 2 that pulls me in hard. The worldbuilding makes it feel like you — the last of the Jedi warriors from the Mandalorian Wars — actually matter, and it makes the stakes feel real even though the game itself has a pretty linear progression roadmap. Part that is undoubtedly because I’m a huge nerd for the old Star Wars expanded universe, but a larger part of that is down to the writing.
Although the game’s tone is less upbeat and more grittily philosophical, it’s a breath of fresh air for me to see a game exploring the Star Wars universe outside of the normal light vs. dark dichotomy, and that’s what keeps me coming back. Most Star Wars titles have cast players in the role of “the only person who can save the world”, and that’s a fantastic starting point for a light-hearted adventure through the stars; KoTOR 2, on the other hand, is an interesting exploration of the idea that the universe is only as large as the spaceship bulkheads around you (and the quirky menagerie of characters you pick up along the way). It’s a refreshing dose of grey — if such a thing could exist — in a universe that primarily deals in black and white.
That divergence from what you’d traditionally expect from a Star Wars game is a huge factor in why I find KoTOR 2 so relaxing. It’s the one and only time that the Star Wars video game universe went full Space Western, letting you go on a Firefly-esque adventure.
Luke: Professor Layton
Whenever I need to relax, it’s almost impossible to go past Professor Layton. My first experience with the Top Hat Professor might have been towards the end of the prequel trilogy with 2013’s Miracle Mask, but since then I’ve gone back and binged most of the franchise – in fact, Lost Future still remains one of the best games I have ever played. The thing with Professor Layton is that there’s always an abundance of puzzles to solve both in the main story and beyond, each one varying in difficulty. There’s just something so satisfying about solving the most challenging puzzles, so whenever I’m stressed out and need to recalibrate my mind, I’ll solve a few puzzles and then go back to whatever I was doing with a renewed sense of determination and focus.
Matt: Stardew Valley
Animal Crossing: New Horizons may have taken Stardew Valley’s place as the ultimate therapeutic farming experience for many gamers, but I find myself returning to the Valley’s vast plains time and time again. For many years now, I have popped Stardew Valley on for some light, harmless fun, only to find myself stuck in its world for hours on end. Although I do come back to Stardew Valley for a number of reasons, the main one is the sense of freedom it gives you: you can undertake whichever tasks you want, whenever you want to. Charming 16-bit visuals and a light-hearted, upbeat soundtrack keep me calm but motivated, highlighting the game’s relaxed, calming nature.
Vibrant colours complement those charming visuals, and the multiplayer mode allows me to share my farming pursuits and creations with like-minded players. Sure, it might not feel like the most original game out there given that you can find many of the same tasks and mechanics in Animal Crossing and, more accurately, Harvest Moon, but each task has a sense of simplicity and relaxation that draws the player in, and an underlying sense of depth and variety that’s sure to keep you around for the long term. I don’t feel as though my time with Stardew Valley has come to an end yet, either, so you know where to find me when the shoot-‘em-up battlefields get a little too chaotic.
Ty: Final Fantasy XIV
Along with boasting one of the greatest comeback stories in gaming history, Final Fantasy XIV is not only one of the best MMOs on the market today, but it’s easily the best Final Fantasy title to be released after XIII. It’s mechanically engaging, gorgeous to look at, it’s got a fantastic soundtrack and, most importantly, it’s got a serviceable story that definitely picks up once you reach the expansion content.
That’s not why I’ve chosen it, though; I’ve chosen it because of the freedom that it gives its players.
It’s rare to find an MMO that genuinely makes you feel like you can do whatever the hell you want, as whoever you want to be, but Final Fantasy XIV does it perfectly. I often find myself coming back after long absences not just to tackle new content, but engage in more “mundane” activities like leveling jobs and professions, and there’s something about that that I find comforting. No matter what’s going on in my life, whether I’ve just finished a long day at work or I’m locked indoors due to COVID-19, whenever I renew that subscription and jump in to grind mobs, fish or even just wander the world, Final Fantasy XIV never fails to calm my nerves.
Zack: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Although I chose Breath of the Wild here, I would really put any large-scale open-world video game. There’s just something so calming about them, and the fact that they really don’t put any pressure on where you’re going or what you’re doing. Sure, there’s a story — a quest to go on, a kingdom to save, all that good stuff — but I can just ignore it. If I’d rather run around cooking food for two hours, I can; if I want to just explore some random mountains, I can; I don’t need to fight anything if I don’t want to, and the dungeons are more or less optional. That freedom is just so calming.
It also helps that these games tend to have a really peaceful ambience. Sure, the music swells up when things get intense (you’re not really relaxing at that point, though!), but otherwise they tend to be very calm and simple. It creates a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere that’s so nice to just get lost in.
Reading through the team’s selections here, it’s interesting to note that very few of these games are “traditionally” relaxing games. Be sure to join the community and let us know what you’d play if you just needed to play a game to relax!
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