I play a lot of challenging puzzle games. For others who are interested in the same niche, I’ve made a bit of a tier list. Rather than using the classic S/A/B/C/D/F tier system, I’ve chosen more evocative tiers, which are not necessarily organized from best to worst.
The list only includes games that I’ve played and that I remember well enough. I’m also using an arbitrary definition of the “challenging puzzle” genre. (Honestly, Zach-like programming games ought to qualify, but I didn’t put them in this list so.)
Games winning my highest praise
Baba is You – This critically acclaimed game combines an entertaining and clever premise with amazing level design. Puzzlers looking for a challenge will also enjoy the optional puzzles, which go quite deep.
Recursed – A hidden gem, rough around the edges, but absolutely mind-blowing once you get into it. Chests within chests within chests within chests. Chests that contain themselves, or each other. Recursion beyond my wildest dreams!
Toki Tori 2 – The best metroidvania puzzler I’ve ever played. Instead of gaining new abilities, you gain new insights into the mechanics, finding new branch points and solving clever puzzles.
Stephen’s Sausage Roll – A game about pushing around giant sausages with a giant fork. As you play, new mechanics emerge naturally from the sausage-ness of the sausages. Notoriously difficult, and no optional puzzles.
A Monster’s Expedition – A game about pushing around logs in an archipelago. As you play, new mechanics emerge naturally from the log-ness of the logs. This game has the distinction of being easier than my other top-rated puzzles, unless you try to do the optional puzzles.
Pipe Push Paradise – The least of these three, but still good. A game about pushing around giant water pipes. New mechanics emerge from the pipe-ness of the pipes. You get the idea.
Games that stand out in the crowd
Understand – A unique puzzler with hidden rules. You form hypotheses about the rules, and then when the hypotheses fails your tests, you rethink everything. Over and over again.
Snakebird – These birds move around like Snake (the game), eating fruit to get longer. Far more difficult than the visuals suggest. For an easier version, there’s Snakebird Primer, which I’ve never tried.
Hiding Spot – A game about moving around office furniture to make a fort to hide in. An obscure game that I expected little out of, but now recall with joy.
Puddle Knights – Knights use their long flowing capes to help nobles avoid stepping in the mud. Nearly belongs in the sausage-like list, for its creative use of cape-ness.
Oldies but goodies
Braid – Time travel puzzles well done. Filled with great ideas, but it was a bit on the easy side and should have been longer.
Deadly Rooms of Death – It’s like a beat-em-up, but turn-based, and a puzzle? Beyond the developer-made levels, there’s also a large collection of user-created puzzles, some of which are extremely difficult. Gunthro and the Epic Blunder is recommended as an (easier) entry point.
Portal 2 – I won’t say much about this well-known game, but this has some of the very best 2-player puzzles around. It’s probably less difficult than most games on this list.
The Witness – Another well-known game, half puzzle, and half perceptual exploration. I think most challenge-lovers would not put this at the top, but its variety and range gives it broad appeal.
Antichamber – A game about impossible geometries and spaces. Like Toki Tori 2, a very good metroidvania puzzler.
Games that I have mixed opinions on
The Talos Principle – Noteworthy as a high-budget pure puzzle game, but I felt that it lacked the unified vision of Portal or The Witness. There are all sorts of puzzle mechanics thrown together, and the quality is uneven.
Induction – There’s a certain kind of puzzle that you solve cooperatively with past versions of yourself. Induction takes this type of puzzle further and deeper than any other game I know of. But I remain skeptical. You spend a lot of time waiting, because you’re not sure how much time to give to your future self.
Salad Fields – A rare find: an LGBTQ puzzle game. The puzzles are classic Sokoban (block pushing puzzles) with a few creative twists. At its best, it reminded me of Deadly Rooms of Death. However, it suffers from a few puzzles that felt fatally flawed. You can skip puzzles entirely just to experience the story–a series of surreal dialogues with a queer furry sensibility.
Games that were fine, but didn’t stand out
English Country Tune
Archaica: The Path of Light
A Good Snowman is Hard to Build
Room to Grow
Games that stood out, but in a bad way
Fez – A critically acclaimed puzzle platformer with an enjoyable premise and metroidvania structure. However, the puzzle design fails to make use of the premise. Fez has what I call “communication puzzles” wherein the designer has a solution in mind that they try to communicate to the player in an obtuse and unstructured way. These are common, for instance, in point n’ clicks, where the designers try to give obscure hints about which item belongs where. Communication puzzles can be done well, but it can go wrong if the designer’s communication is even slightly more obtuse than they intended it. And even when communication puzzles are done right, you just can’t fit many of them into a game, whereas the pure puzzle games I’m talking about often have 100+ puzzles. Basically what I’m saying is, Fez is okay, but its puzzles do not meet my standards.
Cosmic Express – Although this follows good puzzle design principles, I found it unusually tedious. For how difficult it is, it lacks any wow factor. Aliens hop in train, aliens hop out, and the major insights all have to do with placing the tracks one way instead of another. This is a complaint I have about several puzzle games, when the mechanics are a little too simple. But Cosmic Express had this worse than any other. Find a puzzle game that you enjoy more than I enjoyed this one.