Sandbox games are among some of the most inventive and engaging video games out there. They allow and encourage a great deal of creativity, helping the player be as much a part of what unfolds on screen as what the developers themselves intended. Be it progressing through a story at your own pace or exploring and shaping the game environment to your heart's content, sandbox games have something to appeal to almost everyone.
2017 has been an especially good year for lovers of sandbox games, so we compiled a list of some of the best ones up to now to help you navigate your way to your next favorite game.
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Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of the best-rated games of this year so far, let alone being among the best sandbox games. It's not difficult to see why, either -- it's a gorgeous-looking game with a lot to offer.
Set in the distant future, where humans have reverted to living in tribes and machine monsters run wild, this game puts you in the role of Aloy -- a motherless outcast from a matriarchal society. You discover technology that you can harness to hunt and control the monsters you encounter as you traverse the world around you and attempt to unravel the many tangled threads of politics and warfare.
Or you can do none of that, because you're also free to pursue sidequests, wander the world, or master your combat techniques -- and it's the latter that makes Horizon Zero Dawn really shine. Combat in this game involves learning the patterns and behaviors of various machines in a way reminiscent of Xenoblade Chronicles, and Aloy has no shortage of weapons and abilities to help her on the way to victory.
Of course, the combat is helped along quite a bit by the game's visuals. Dark, yet rich, they go a long way in pulling you into this world and making it believable -- and interested parties will also find a lot to enjoy in the game's themes of what it means to be human and the role of technology, among other things not often explored in video games.
For more information, read our review of Horizon Zero Dawn.
Kingdoms and Castles is a simulator that places you in the role of a ruler who must decide how best to build up their kingdom. It offers you plenty of options for doing so, along with plenty of challenges.
Your most basic goal is keeping your people happy -- partly because that's what good rulers do, and partly so that you can tax them without fear of revolt. You're also responsible for keeping them fed and healthy, which means allocating resources to farming, to better buildings, and so on. But in return, you also attract new residents to exploit -- er, care for.
There are other challenges too, including marauding Vikings and dragons that mercilessly sack your kingdom if you aren't militarily prepared for them. The biggest pleasure, though, comes from building and managing the layout of your kingdom itself, and the layout of things like towers and walls that change based on how you stack your tiles and choose to build.
Ultimately, how and where you build your kingdom determines your success or demise. It may not have quite the depth of Civilization, but Civilization also doesn't have dragons…
RiME is an atmospheric puzzle game that offers a great gameplay experience despite having no dialogue. The world itself is very open, and players are free to pursue or ignore important and optional quests as they please. It's fairly easy to ignore the optional ones, though most of the required puzzles do give the player a good deal of guidance in one form or another.
However, puzzles are only part of the adventure here. The visual style makes exploring every inch of the island -- and trying to achieve the trophies -- as much fun as progressing through the game itself. Yet you will want to progress and see your adventure through to the end.
One of the best things about RiME is actually the story -- which is interesting, considering the fact that it only really starts to become a focus towards the game's end. There won't be any spoilers here, but it certainly gives you a different perspective on the game and protagonist.
Gravity Rush 2 improves on its predecessor in almost every way. The world is more expansive, you have new abilities with which you can manipulate gravity, a multitude of quests has been added, and you can freely develop your own combat style.
It's difficult to determine what is more rewarding in Gravity Rush 2. The missions themselves are quite varied, but flying around to explore the vast world and its unique aesthetic is a pleasure in itself. Fans of the first game will likely think the story is the best feature, though, since it ties up many of the loose ends left by the first.
What makes this game special as a sandbox game is the fact that, despite having a definite overarching story, you are pretty much free to choose how you go about finding and completing the chapter missions. However, the combat is rather rewarding as well, since players can develop a variety of fighting styles -- all of which make excellent use of the key gravity manipulation mechanic -- to suit whatever situation comes their way.
Yonder: The Cloudcatcher Chronicles is an interesting game. Compared to most games, there's not a lot to do. It's almost impossible to die, there is no combat, and the story itself is rather thin -- involving a creeping darkness invading the islands of Gemea and the need to recover the Sprites that can repel it.
However, you don't really need to pursue the story, if you don't want to. The real fun comes from exploring and interacting with the environment, along with using materials to craft items that help you explore further. There are plenty of side quests too, along with farming elements, that your crafting will help make easier.
Yonder shows off a different side of gaming -- the more relaxed and comforting side that helps you unwind after a stressful day. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Slime Rancher combines a variety of different genres into one unique package. Playing as Beatrix LeBeau, you arrive at an abandoned ranch a thousand light years away from your home planet and must work to restore it to glory -- much like the setup in earlier Harvest Moon games (well, minus the space travel).
However, you won't be taking care of your usual animals here. As the name suggests, this game is all about finding, taming, battling, and raising slimes. Slimes come in a huge variety of forms and colors, all with their own characteristics that require specific methods of care to thrive. Of course, that means scouring the world to find what you need for your ranch and slimes to grow and prosper, and Slime Rancher offers a wide, quite attractive world to explore using your handy vacpack -- a vacuum that also happens to be your backpack and can act a lot like Samus Aran's arm cannon too.
There's not much story to be found here, which leaves you free to focus on making your ranch the best it can be using whatever methods work. (And with the help of our Slime Rancher guides, you're sure to get started on the right foot.)
Minecraft might be the most well-known sandbox video game, but Lego has definitely been letting people build their imaginations for a lot longer. And that's exactly what you do in Lego Worlds -- build anything you can imagine.
In a combination of Minecraft and Scribblenauts, Lego Worlds unleashes you into a series of creative and bizarre worlds, all connected to each other somehow. You might start in a modern city setting, then end up in a haunted forest, only to leave the forest and head into an arid desert.
Like Minecraft, you are free -- freer than any previous Lego game -- to create anything and everything you want. There's a tutorial mode to help get you started, or you can bypass this completely and play in sandbox mode. Like Scribblenauts, there is a story to be found in all of this -- but it's not anything too in-depth, and there are plenty of side missions to complete as well. As with any good sandbox game, it's up to you how to handle them. You can work within the lines, or you can completely break the game with some creative creations and work your way around the lines.
Naturally, any list of best sandbox games so far this year has to include The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. One of the things that makes this game stand out as a sandbox game is the fact that it even is a sandbox game -- a tremendous departure from the formulaic, linear Zelda games of yesteryear.
After completing a few required scenarios, players can immediately race to the game's final moments, scour the land for the best equipment possible, find and complete a multitude of shrine quests and uncover new abilities in the process, or delve into the game's story. Series fans would probably be as interested in the last option as anything else, but the game is still completely accessible for newcomers on account of it being set so far in the future from any events in any other Zelda game.
Exploration and puzzle solving are no longer a "paint-by-numbers" affair either. As Nintendo frequently mentioned in the leadup to the game's launch, there are as many ways to solve a puzzle as there are players.
What have been your favorite sandbox games this year? If they aren't included in our list, leave a comment below and let us know!