You may have seen me writing tons of Genshin Impact blogs around here, and that is definitely a free-to-play game that I think is outstanding and deserving of extensive coverage. However, there are actually tons of other great free-to-play games in the mobile gaming ecosystem, too.
Of course, there’s not really such a thing as a free game. For example, with the gacha monetization model, some games are easier to clear with free or low-rarity characters, while others are more dependent on high-damage characters from the paid gacha system. But every gacha game needs tons of free content, since only 2 percent of gacha players spend any money. This year, I’ve spent $50 on Fate/Grand Order and around $90 on Genshin Impact. While I was an unemployed college student, I never spent any money at all.
These aren’t games that you can “finish” in a month–rather, they tend to be games you live with over time, as they constantly add new story content and challenges. I don’t see free-to-play games so much as being in direct competition with other games, but rather as a space where different types of creativity and innovation can flourish. Here are some of the best free-to-play titles that kept me coming back throughout the year.
This free-to-play action RPG experienced a highly successful launch last year, and it continues to enjoy consistent updates for seasonal events, quality-of-life tweaks, and main quest content. The robust updates are buoyed by an enthusiastic fan community that keeps the game relevant through fanworks and constant online engagement.
But it’s not just the community that’s constantly pushing Genshin to the forefront. Its unique combat is what gives the game enormous staying power. Gacha games usually have a huge problem with powercreep. By adding increasingly powerful characters into the pool of available fighters, older characters typically become less relevant in the meta. This can be a huge problem if the older playbase has invested a massive amount of time, money, and resources into them.
However, Genshin keeps older characters from being powercrept by adding new characters and weapons that can enhance their teammates’ potential. Raiden Shogun has arguably revitalized the entire electro meta with her energy-focused kit. And the addition of the low-rarity Gorou revitalized interest in older geo characters like Noelle and Ningguang, who have been in the game since the very beginning. Instead of competing with other characters for top meta spots, each new character can uplift the value of their potential teammates. It’s an incredibly smart formula that ensures that Genshin will be worth playing for years to come.
If you’re a complete newcomer to free-to-play gacha games, the tower defense game Arknights is the easiest to recommend. Almost every character is obtainable with non-premium currency, and the low-rarity characters are viable even in harder content. YouTubers like KyoStinV and Eckogen specifically make low-rarity guides so that even unlucky players can easily clear game content.
In Arknights, you strategically position your characters so that they can defeat enemies before they can reach your home base location(s). Each character has a specific niche in the meta, and the game periodically releases new kinds of challenge maps to keep every niche relevant. Some characters are good for blocking groups of foes. Others are good as quick-drop assassins, or they generate energy for other characters’ skills.
There’s almost no one-size-fits-all strategy that applies to every “hard” map. If you’ve always relied on being over-levelled for games like Fire Emblem, you’re in for a nasty surprise in Arknights. Levels and promotions do matter at higher difficulties, but grinding can’t replace tactical acumen. But don’t worry if you’ve never played a tower defense game. The gameplay tutorialization is superb. The story is both compelling and handles moral ambiguity with nuance. Arknights is a game that I can recommend to anyone who enjoys anime, real-time strategy, or narrative games.
This team-based strategy game was the sleeper hit of 2021. Alchemy Stars has gorgeous character art, one of the best mobile game soundtracks, and a fascinating turn-based combat system. Your characters move on a grid-based map, and you match tiles of the same colors to execute special combos. Do you prioritize hitting several enemies at once, or do you focus your attacks on one large boss? Do you hit and run? Or do you stay within your enemies’ attack range to execute several devastating combos next turn? Alchemy Stars’ gameplay is easy to pick up, but a lot harder to master. The game also experiences extremely frequent updates. I can’t remember a single lull in which there wasn’t a major ongoing event.
The story is decent, and I would put it on par with Arknights. However, Alchemy Stars also suffers from localization problems. The translations don’t impede my understanding of the story, but I wish they were more elegantly localized. If the story isn’t a dealbreaker for you, Alchemy Stars is one of the best strategy games that you can play on your mobile device.
Fate/Grand Order is the most widely played visual novel game in the world, and for good reason. It’s one of the most ambitious multiverse IPs in gaming. In one chapter, pretty boy Ozymandias faces off against a female King Arthur. In another, Brynhildr and Sigurd team up with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Joan of Arc fights her evil twin. No historical figure or mythological legend is sacred. But the Fate universe makes everything work with fantastic storytelling that fully buys into its own bullshit. By the time that Francis Drake showed up as a pink-haired pirate woman, I nodded and thought, “Yeah, that seems absolutely correct.”
The first story arc took players to alternate versions of ancient Rome, the mythological Okeanos, Victorian London, Colonial America, Jerusalem, and Babylon. In the second arc, players explored extremely strange versions of Russia, Sweden, and China. This year, the developers released the main quest chapters for India and Atlantis. The only problem? You have to finish nearly five million words of story before you can play either of them. The gameplay features a turn-based combat system which is fairly simple to grasp despite the ever-changing meta.
The main problem with F/GO is that it has perhaps the most unforgiving gacha system of any game. There’s no “pity system” to guarantee rare characters after a certain number of pulls, so I can’t recommend it to beginners or players who struggle with gacha systems. I highly recommend trying the other games on this list before attempting F/GO. But once you get past the clunkiness of this six-year-old game, you’ll find that it has some of the best storytelling in video games. The endings to most chapters are as emotionally devastating (if not more so) than those of any JRPG that you can play on a console.
Tears of Themis is a cross between a dating sim and an Ace Attorney game. You play as a defense attorney representing various clients who have been accused of murder. Along the way, you raise your bonds with four young men, like in an otome game. Instead of pulling for characters like you would in most gacha games, you’re pulling for cards featuring short stories of the male leads. The gameplay takes the form of oral debates, in which you play different cards to triumph over your opponents’ arguments.
I only started playing Tears of Themis this month, and it’s been a cozy and relaxed way to spend time between other live service games. The art is gorgeous, the card game is easy to pick up, and the mysteries are well-written. I don’t personally care for the dating aspect (I’m too queer for it), but I enjoy the mini-dramas and solving the whodunnits. I’ve played other free-to-play romance apps on mobile, and Tears of Themis stands above them. If you’re interested in mobile otome games, this is the one that you should be playing.