Gaming has evolved tremendously over the course of the past decade alone. There is a huge variety of games being offered now, and with that comes diversity in how a developer might choose to deliver their game. They are no longer required to package up bite-sized levels that fit nicely between two loading screens. This is partly why I split the best levels in gaming into before and after 2010, so if you haven’t read that list, check it out.
That doesn’t mean that we haven’t had some absolute gems after 2010, as you will soon see. However, I think that the size and scale of some of these levels break free of the norm that defined levels in the past. They still focus on a core theme and have a relatively uniform look to them, but they might be longer or even feature a couple of distinct locations within them. With that out of the way, let’s load into the first chapter on the list.
Ginso Tree Water Escape – Ori and the Blind Forest
I’m getting this out of the way quickly because I know that Ori is probably the least traditionally leveled game on this list. It’s a Metroidvania, but there are sections that play out very similarly to levels. I can’t not mention the Ginso Tree Water Escape level because it’s not only beautiful, but it tests the player’s platforming abilities to their fullest.
As the water begins to flood the center of the tree where Ori finds itself. The blues and greens of the forest flash all around as the rising water acts as a constant threat below the player. One wrong step and it’s gameover, but this is one of the most invigorating experiences I have felt in a game in my life.
Grim Matchstick – Cuphead
Cuphead does something that no other game that I am aware of does, which is that it made the majority of its levels boss fights. There are no platforming or beat-em-up sections preventing you from progressing – only the next difficult boss.
While the entire game is pretty difficult for the uninitiated, there is no better boss that demonstrates not only everything you’ve learned in the game so far but is a proving ground for the player.
Grim Matchstick is a three-headed dragon that will prove more than a challenge as the game racks up the difficulty here. All of its phases will require you to be light on your feet and getting your shots in where you can. For many, this boss acted as a roadblock to the rest of the game. If you hadn’t learned some of the fundamentals at this point, there was no way to get around it. You learned here, or you fell off.
Lewis’ Story – What Remains of Edith Finch
Lewis’s story is one of the best examples I have seen of game design and storytelling being so interwoven to achieve a higher purpose. Lewis is working in a fishery and taking the heads off of fish every day, all day. During these mundane moments, he copes by letting his imagination run wild, so the player has to navigate an imaginary world and continue taking the heads off of fish.
As the level progresses, the imaginary world takes up more and more of the screen while the beheading task becomes second nature to the player; Lewis’ therapist narrates the decline in Lewis’ mental health while his boss exclaims what a hard worker he is.
Eventually, the real world becomes too much to bear, and Lewis takes his own life in favor of the world he made up. It’s heartbreaking, disturbing, and leaves you thinking more than the main story might have.
Salt Lake City – The Last of Us
The Last of Us is one of the defining games of the last decade, so it goes without saying that one of its levels would make the list. Salt Lake City starts as one of the slower levels as Joel leads Ellie toward the city. He talks a little about the future, telling her he’s going to teach her the guitar. There is hope in him here.
The two run into a herd of giraffes and wonder at their majesty and freedom. It’s nice to see the connection that these two have built up over the course of the game. Plus, I really like seeing the urban decay in this game, and Salt Lake City is one of the best examples of this as there is little combat early on, giving the player time to enjoy the scenery.
Everything is bright and green; it really makes you enjoy the day before the bullets start flying again. It shows a world, though dangerous, that is full of life and potential right before the heartbreaking and divisive final scene takes place – one that shows Joel’s heart and soul at this point in his life better than anything else could.
Episode 5: The Walking Dead Season One
Oh, look, more sad stuff. Episode 5 of Tell Tale’s Season One of The Walking Dead is everything that fans were fearing might happen at its conclusion.
Lee is bitten at the beginning of the level and must find a way to survive as long as he can and figure out how he will ensure Clementine will remain safe when he is gone.
It’s a heartbreaking conclusion that had people talking for months after the episode was released. It sums up the entire first season well and gives us a bitter end to one of the best characters in that entire franchise while setting Clementine up for later success. It was a brilliant conclusion that I am still reeling from to this day.
Kadingir Sanctum – Doom (2016)
While it can be argued that most of Doom’s levels are all the same, one level has to stand above all the others, and in this case, it’s Kadingir Sanctum.
This level combined verticality and enemy variety perfectly while meshing the combat seamlessly with Mick Gordon’s soundtrack. Jumping from a floating rock into the air to rip the eyeball out of cacodemon just to slam into a crater and take out several imps feels so good.
Every second of this level is a fast-paced metal-infused joy ride with a fantastic hellish backdrop. This is the level that I think of when I think of Doom (2016), and it was one of the defining levels in a shooter of the past decade for me.
The Descent – Journey
There are few games that capture the theme of living in the present as effectively as Journey did, and The Descent illustrates that best. Gliding through the sandy ruins among the flying robe-like creatures is such a moment of serenity.
The sun is beginning to go down on the horizon, so the sand is taking on a golden appearance. When you finally reach the top of some ruins in the area and slide down, the sun is peeking through the pillars, coating everything in a honey glow as you slide through the long desolate structure.
Everything feels so alive but not as if it was all just hibernating, waiting to come back. This moment can be even more magical if a stranger joins in and there are two of you skating back and forth. Lost in the memory that you are making together. Living in just that single moment.
The Luncheon Kingdom – Mario Odyssey
Mario Odyssey has some of my favorite worlds in all of the franchise, but I have to say that I think Luncheon Kingdom takes the cake. The unique art style immediately sets this one apart from its peers, and the colorful cast of NPCs are a joy to look at.
There are also some really good transformations in this level, and fighting the big bird cooking his soup is one of if not my favorite boss battle in the game.
It felt like the developers used the Cappy transformation they chose for the battle to its fullest potential, unlike many of the other fights, which could feel like superficial choices. Plus, everyone loves food, so what is there not to like about an entire level themed around that premise?
Mirror Temple – Celeste
There has been an increasing number of games that have a focus on introspective traits and themes, and no game represents that trend better than Celeste.
While the entire game will deal with Madeline’s perception of herself and her mental health, Mirror Temple stands out as one of the best levels both mechanically and thematically to meet that goal.
The temple is supposed to be a manifestation of all of Madeline’s insecurities that she must navigate in the environment. The actual platforming is just as great as the rest of the game, but there are a few new mechanics that are added here, which will require you to be in top form to ensure your escape. Juggling Theo when he is in the crystal at the end is still one of the funniest and frustrating parts of the game for me – like come on man, why’d you have to get stuck in this crystal?
The Fall – Portal 2
Portal 2 is a joy from start to finish, but there is one level in particular that has continued to stand out to me every time I think about it. The Fall is when Wheatly casts GLaDOS and Chell into the depths of Aperture Science.
Chell must find her way back up, but in doing so, she will begin to uncover some of the history of Aperture Science, its founder Cave Johnson, and GLaDOS. These are the old halls of Aperture where Johnson was performing some of the work that would lead to his death and his wish to make his assistant Catherine the next leader of Aperture.
The actual puzzles down here are some of the more challenging ones, too, since they require the player to break free of their prior knowledge of the white-washed testing rooms. They have to begin to think with portals in a more industrial context which is a really smart switch up from a game that might have been toeing the line between being too formulaic at that point. It’s really cool to see these old tests and hear the playful banter between Johnson and Catherine, too.