Yes, we’ve reached the inevitable listicle. It was bound to happen at some point.
Lockdown has plenty of people stuck inside and bored. Luckily, there are plenty of games you can play without spending any money at all, and these days fans of nearly any genre can probably find one that appeals to them. And, if you end up not liking it, at least the price was right!
There’s a bit of a stigma around the term “free-to-play,” because in the past it usually meant “pay-to-win.” I’m intentionally avoiding games that rely on that model - every one of these can be played and enjoyed without ever spending a cent. I also chose from a wide list of genres to try and make sure there was going to be something here for everyone.
So, in no particular order, here are five of my favorite free-to-play games:
We’ve talked about Dauntless before, but Phoenix Labs’ free-to-play Monster Hunter tribute has gotten better than ever. The server problems seem to be largely a thing of the past (there’s still some latency in town and at the start of a hunt, but nothing that interferes with combat). The Switch release has completed their mission to bring Dauntless to every major platform with total cross-compatibility. Oh, and have I mentioned Escalations?
Escalations are a special type of hunt where, instead of fighting a single behemoth, you go through a gauntlet of several rounds with randomized hazards. These can range from tougher behemoths with specific weak spots, to fire-shooting turrets, to smaller animals that show up and harass you while you’re trying to fight. If you do well enough on the previous rounds - some of which have you fighting two monsters at once! - you get to fight the Dauntless equivalent of a raid boss in a climactic showdown with some unique mechanics. There are only two Escalations so far, but Phoenix Labs has announced that a third is on the way, and we can’t wait to see it.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the Elite Hunt Pass. Yes, there is some premium content that’s locked behind a paywall. The Elite Pass will net you more resources from each hunt you complete, along with a bunch of cosmetic and convenience items that you can’t get without spending real money.
However, even without paying you’ll get some bonuses as you level up your normal Hunt Pass: stuff like new emotes, dyes, resources, and even a small amount of the in-game premium currency. I’ve been playing since early access, and the only Elite Pass I bought was the most recent one. I can promise, while it’s nice to have, it’s by no means necessary to do well in Dauntless.
This particular game has become a favorite on the Sprites and Dice Discord server - not many days go by without at least a few of us grouping up to kill some monsters.
We’ve talked about Warframe before, but Digital Extremes’ free-to-play third-person action shooter has… wait, this feels familiar.
I was a bit lukewarm on Warframe at first, but it really is an incredible game. Smooth controls, insane abilities, and the story Destiny should have had come together to make an experience that I can’t believe is free.
The latest story arc has the Sentients, powerful alien robots whom your faction fought and defeated ages ago, returning to attack the solar system. It takes two full squads of players to beat these things, playing two almost completely different games in a cooperative endeavor to drive them back - a squad on the ground has to find a Sentient, clear the area around it, soften it up by attacking its core, and mark it with beacons. Then a squad in a spaceship (which the players themselves build) bring the thunder and destroy the Sentient for good.
This incredibly fun and mildly off-the-wall game is available for Windows, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch. Sadly, unlike Dauntless, Warframe does not feature cross-play, so you’ll only be able to play with people who have it for the same system as you.
Finally, as far as spending real money goes, the in-game currency makes things more convenient but certainly isn’t needed. The only thing you’ll be totally unable to do without spending money is expand your inventory, so there will be a limit to how many Frames and weapons you can have at any one time. It’s a bummer when you run out of room and have to choose between spending real money and selling off some of your inventory, but it’s hard to complain when stacked against the sheer amount of content you get without spending a cent.
On the other hand, you can also farm up and sell rare items in-game for Platinum. It’s a grind, but it’s actually possible to get what you need without ever spending a cent.
Stepping away from co-op games, Brawlhalla is a PvP fighter that features over 40 characters and is available for free on PC, Mac, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One. It also comes equipped with cross-play (except with Mac, for some reason). I was going to say that Brawlhalla is pretty darned good for a free-to-play fighter, but you know what? It’s just pretty darned good.
I’ve been sitting here thinking “like Super Smash Bros. but…” and trying to figure out what the “but” is. Now I realize there isn’t one; I was just thinking of the wrong Super Smash Bros. Brawlhalla is very much a tribute to the original game for N64.
You can have up to four players in a match and you beat your opponents by knocking them off the level. As you take damage you become easier to knock away, but unless you’re blown completely off the map you can usually recover with directional special moves. Random items ranging from swords to bombs spawn throughout the match, and it becomes a race to see who gets them first. The action is quick, but it doesn’t have the utterly frantic pace of Smash Bros. Melee, or even Ultimate.
The bad news is that, without paying, you’ll only have access to eight characters at a time. Furthermore, unlike Dauntless and Warframe, you can’t get around that restriction by grinding. The in-game currency you can earn is only good for cosmetics, so if you want to open up the rest of the roster there’s no choice but to cough up twenty bucks for the All Legends Pack.
The good news is that the free roster rotates weekly, so you can keep trying out new fighters while you wait for your favorite to pop back up. There’s also a weekly special event to keep things interesting. Even if you never end up paying there’s enough here to keep you busy for a while, and the constant promise of different content the following week.
We’ve talked about Eternal before, but - okay, we’re not doing that again.
Eternal is a free-to-play online CCG by Dire Wolf Games that’s a bit like the lovechild of Hearthstone and Magic: the Gathering. The interface will look and feel very familiar to any Hearthstone fan, but the game involves different energy types, larger deck sizes, and a deeper level of complexity that are all more reminiscent of Magic.
However, the real reason that Eternal ended up on this list is because it’s so generous to free players. Your first win every day, ranked or casual, is rewarded with a pack of the newest set. In addition, every time you win you’ll be rewarded with some gold that you can spend on more packs, and a chance at other rewards as well. Even with the exceptionally large deck size (75 cards minimum) and the need to build for particular color(s), it’s possible to make a pretty effective deck without spending any money at all.
I won’t lie and say that you can become world champ without spending some real money, but the ceiling is much higher than you’d expect. If online competitive play isn’t your cup of tea, you can also stick to playing against AI opponents just for fun.
For my (lack of) money, Eternal is the best online CCG out there.
#5: Dungeon Fighter Online
There are any number of free MMORPGs that I could have put in this spot: Maplestory, World of Tanks, the first 35 levels of Final Fantasy XIV... you get the point. And, really, any one of those could be worth your time. Yes, even Maplestory - I’ve lost more hours to that game than I care to admit.
So why Dungeon Fighter Online?
Well, first of all, those other MMOs are much more popular and you probably don’t need me to tell you about them. Second, I’ve never played World of Tanks and couldn’t tell you about it even if I wanted to. But, really, it’s because DFO is the online cooperative side-scrolling brawler that I always wished more people would play with me.
You might be wondering how an arcade brawler MMO works, and it’s a fair question. DFO is technically an MMO, but it’s not a single open world like you’re probably imagining. There are common town areas where everyone can interact, trade, and so on. However, when you go out to actually fight some dungeons online, it creates a unique instance for your party. However many people are playing DFO at any given time, there will never be anyone but your party in your dungeon.
Beyond that, it plays like any classic arcade brawler (think Streets of Rage) with a sprinkling of MMO mechanics. You pick a class, take on quests, level up, and earn new skills and ever-stronger gear. When you’re in a dungeon you explore, fight monsters, watch your health and mana, pop potions to keep yourself going, then find your way to the boss and punch it until it stops moving. It’s a simple yet satisfying game-play loop, and punching, slashing, and casting your way through hordes of monsters never gets old.
Stay Inside, But Stay Sane
This is a hard time for everyone - some much more so than others - and we at Sprites and Dice aren’t going to pretend that a couple of new games will make everything better. However, we do hope that the values we were founded on: positivity, community, and the celebration of games and gamers, might help make it a little bit easier.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and as always, have fun gaming!