One of the beauties of mobile gaming is also its biggest vice: free to play. It gives you the chance to try games without risk but can also distort the gameplay itself, so that you’re continually being lured into paying up. It’s a dichotomy that favours Brawlhalla and EVE Echoes, with their baked-in belief in player equality, but proves to be the undoing of Ubisoft’s insipid and exploitative, Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad.
EVE Online is the limitlessly vast and legendarily complex, yet highly democratic, space-based MMO in which a council of players helps inform its development. EVE Echoes was clearly born from this environment and while it is free to download and has microtransactions it’s by no means an empty-headed cash grab.
In fact, it’s a surprisingly expansive mobile interpretation of its older sibling, your clone pilot gradually earning and learning new skills, and with that the ability to fly better spacecraft. Ship-to-ship combat takes place at huge range in the empty blackness of space, but it’s nevertheless satisfying blowing away space pirates with your slowly improving arsenal.
You need a £5 per month Omega account to sell any loot you acquire, and while you can pay using in-game currency or just do without it, its absence will noticeably slow your progress. For fans of the original and awestruck newcomers alike, this is space opera size XXL.
iOS & Android, £2.99 (teamcoil)
In PUSS! you guide a cartoon cat’s head around garishly psychedelic moving mazes, trying not to crash into the walls and a range of rapidly oscillating obstructions.
Alongside the inherent navigational difficulties, it also uses a control scheme where small movements of your finger on the screen translate to large movements of the cat head, making even relatively static courses a challenge. Lose all your lives and you start right back at the beginning.
The in-your-face visuals distort and strobe when you collide with walls or objects, giving the whole enterprise a migraine-inducing quality that actually goes quite well with its savage difficulty level. If you suffer from photosensitive epilepsy, this is a game you might want to avoid.
World’s End Club
iOS via Apple Arcade (IzanigiGames)
When the minibus carrying members of the Go Getters Club crashes, the children wake up in a weird underwater amusement park where they’re forced to play the Game of Fate, something that has more than a little in common with the set up in the Saw movies.
What follows is surprisingly dark, despite its protagonists’ youth and manga cuteness, the narrative branching in all sorts of semi-lethal directions as you test the game’s capacity for characters to lie, manipulate, and double cross their junior school chums.
It’s voiced, but entirely in Japanese with subtitles, some of which could have done with another pass by a sub-editor, but it doesn’t spoil this unusual and lightly macabre tale that, as you might have already guessed from the description, is by Danganronpa writer Kazutaka Kodaka.
iOS & Android, £Free (Ubisoft)
Originally released in 2014 and already available on PC and consoles, the mobile version of Brawhalla brings its Super Smash Bros. esque charms to touchscreen pretty much intact.
Once again, you’ll be using one of a roster of 50 unlockable fighters, each of whom has a set of two weapons they can pick up in levels. Fighting on small, often moveable patches of land, you’ll gradually pummel opponents until you can knock them off the screen with one last triumphant smash.
Although all the combos, stances and weapons make it to the small screen, the touch controls are no match for a proper controller, instantly putting mobile players at a disadvantage in the game’s all-platform cross-play matches. Still, for a totally free game with only cosmetic microtransactions, you’d have to be an inveterate choosing beggar to complain too loudly.
iOS, £Free (Bonzai Games)
Underneath its lightly camouflaged name, Mineswifter is actually Minesweeper, the classic PC game of logic and occasional sweaty palmed guesswork.
This version distinguishes itself by being actually free, with no ads or microtransactions, and an interface that’s clean, easy to use, and offers an all-important undo button – a boon to anyone teetering on the last few moves of a 99-mine level.
There are daily challenges and three different board sizes to choose from in this pared back and pretty much perfect reincarnation of the 1989 original.
The Bonfire 2: Uncharted Shores
In Bonfire 2’s tale of settlers in a strange land, you start by building a fire, then add a hunter’s lodge to gather food, a dock to fish from, huts to sleep in, and before you know it you’ve overseen the construction of a small but thriving hamlet.
Assign villagers to do jobs, and increase the number of guards to ward off monster attacks, as you manage your people through day and night cycles, and try to see past the game’s limitations: the tiny map and the fact that in each playthrough you’re initially forced to construct the same buildings in the same order.
It’s a good looking game, but without the capacity to make enough of your own decisions in the opening hours, each attempt feels identical to the last, holding back the possibility of any real strategic experimentation.
Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad
iOS & Android, £Free (Ubisoft)
Drawing its characters from across Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy universe, from Ghost Recon to Splinter Cell to Rainbow Six: Siege, Elite Squad is a blandly generic gacha game, with tedious, tactics-free, but mercifully brief gun battles tacked onto the front end.
Login bonuses, loot crates, timed energy refills to initiate battles; Elite Squad ticks all the boxes for free-to-play mobile games, reducing your agency to tapping when you’re told to and either waiting or paying to shortcut the upgrade process. The game also crashes with monotonous regularity.
As if its core mechanics weren’t offensive enough, the raised fist logo of Umbra, the standard-issue shadowy organisation you fight in the first of its campaigns, bears an unfortunate resemblance to the imagery used by Black Lives Matter protestors. A perplexing choice in the currently febrile atmosphere but the game itself provides plenty of additional reasons to want to avoid it.