2020 REWIND: GAMING
It was a busy and hectic year. So, without further ado, here are all the games I didn’t get a chance to review, but still should get a chance in the limelight.
DOOM ETERNAL: THE ANCIENT GODS
(ID SOFTWARE, released October 20th 2020. Reviewed on PC.)
The first expansion to DOOM ETERNAL sees the Doom Slayer return to clean up the mess he left in both heaven and hell. With a power vacuum in the ancients left in his wake, new lords of chaos are rising with the intent of finishing what their predecessors started.
The expansion is massive, reminiscent of actual expansion packs from days of yore. Included are hours upon hours of hardcore slaughter, complete with a slew of hidden treasures and easter eggs in every level. Only the surprisingly hard difficulty level lets down an otherwise impressive package. I’m not saying I’m getting old, but an hour of ANCIENT GODS had my arms cramping from the assault on all senses.
Other than that, the trifecta I loved about DOOM ETERNAL is still here: a ridiculous soundtrack, over-the-top gore, and a surprisingly involving storyline. ID Software continues to build on the Doom Slayer’s lore as an angelic/demonic figure floating through time, and I’m all there for it. ANCIENT GODS might lack the sequel’s novelty, and there are times when some diminishing returns start to set in. But this is the kind of expansion pack that game companies should deliver instead of the cheap skins and DLC packs for a single level. Even if it’s too much of a good thing, that’s hardly a complaint.
(10 Chambers Collective, Early Access. Reviewed on PC.)
Hardcore co-op shooters are a rare breed, so when a new one shows up and becomes an overnight sensation on Twitch, you better pay attention. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, where imprisoned soldiers roam the abandoned underground laboratories searching for wealth and knowledge, GTFO is immediately impressive in tone and style. The loading screen, where you experience first hand the harrowing drop into the maw of the earth, is instantly an all-time great.
With gameplay expressly designed for four-player teams, GTFO is quite frankly unplayable solo. Each level requires cooperation, communication, and a tight crew to survive alive. Just finding your designated target will get you often killed early on, and that’s before you have to consider securing an escape route.
GTFO shines in world-building, style, and overall mood. Developer 10 Chambers Collective has a clear and solid vision behind their dystopian hellscape, and I’m all there for it. Where the game does falter is in playability, which sadly isn’t quite there yet. Gun-play, one of the main pillars of the experience, is unwieldy and not a lot of fun at the moment. Similarly, the monsters encountered in the depths suffer from weird animation glitches, making it look like they’re missing frames. Usually, such a mechanic is welcome, as it looks unnerving and adds to the nightmarish vibe. But here, the twitching also adds to the lack of feedback when firing on them, leading to far too many cases of “did I hit it?”
During our few days with GTFO, we went through both the base game and the new Rundown mode, both of which generally play very well. GTFO is remarkably polished and well designed for an indie experience and runs stable even in Early Access.
That said, until the final release rolls around, I’m going to be wary of recommending the game just yet. I hope that the shooting mechanics become more refined over time and that 10 Chambers continues implementing more varied ways of navigating the underground.
As always, Early Access titles are only first looks. A full review will arrive down the line once GTFO fully releases in 2021.
SPIRIT OF THE NORTH: ENHANCED EDITION
(Infuse Studios, released December 1st 2020. Reviewed on PlayStation 5.)
Haunting, beautiful, evocative, and clumsy. All words to describe the ambitious and rewarding, if often frustrating platformer from Infuse Studio. There’s a lot of love in this small indie darling, even if a lot of it requires patience to get at.
Set in Icelandic lore, SPIRIT OF THE NORTH is all about discovery, puzzle-solving, and style – loads and loads of style. If there were an award for best mood, SPIRIT would be a surefire winner every year, even when it wasn’t running.
I loved the setting and how Infuse Studio has captured the unique and quirky mannerisms of foxes. Your character never feels fake or artificial, but instead a companion on a long journey into the unknown.
Sadly, the controls are iffy, and not all of the puzzles feel logical in a way that is conducive to a rewarding experience. Neither one is a deal-breaker, and it’s clear that Infuse is working on a foundation that will only improve in the future. But they are notable issues worth mentioning, especially if you’re someone who usually doesn’t play platformers. Don’t go expecting the precise perfection of ORI.
Having said that, I absolutely recommend giving SPIRIT OF THE NORTH a try. It looks gorgeous on every single platform, and that’s not an easy feat to pull off. The world is entertaining to explore, and the entire game is bursting with style and love. It’s the kind of project you should support just so that we can see another one like it in the future. I have great hopes for whatever Infuse Studios comes up with next.
CONAN EXILES: ISLE OF SIPTAH
(Funcom, Early Access. Reviewed on PC.)
I’ve played the base game of CONAN EXILES for about two hundred hours now, which should say something about my love for it. I’m a complete sucker for exploration and building games, even though I still haven’t found one I truly love. EXILES comes close, though. It has one of the most refined construction simulations around, and the world is just diverse enough never to feel tedious.
But it’s also laggy, buggy, and the advancement mechanics are tedious at best. By the time you hit a certain milestone about three hours in, everything slows to a crawl. While ambitious, the story never gets the kind of traction it needs to be engaging, and not once during my time with the game have I felt the desire to go and hunt down elements relating to it. Personally, I just want to build my fantasy cities and castles, and for that, EXILES is a decent enough experience for now.
With the added expanse called THE ISLE OF SIPTAH, EXILES hopes to bring back players like myself. Those who’ve already started to drift away from the Cimmerian’s call. But after some time with the new world, I can’t say that this is the one that’ll bring me back.
The new island is small, for one, and its variety is cramped compared to the base game. The new skins for buildings are a nice addition, but they add so little to the actual gameplay that they might as well be DLC.
All the other issues also remain. Combat is still floaty and unremarkable, making most of the exploration feel like a chore. The gameplay loop of hunting, gathering, and constructing better foundations are, for the most part, rewarding, but it’s nothing that isn’t available in the base EXILES already.
At its best, SIPTAH offers a momentary glimpse into a world beyond the deserts into something exciting, but it doesn’t follow through strongly enough. Leaving the expansion feeling like a teaser for something more prominent on the horizon. On its own, it’s a disappointingly shallow half-step that’s neither here nor there.
THE ISLE OF SIPTAH is in Early Access now, and as such, it’s not a finished product by any means. But the thing is, CONAN EXILES barely feels like it’s out of Early Access, and there are huge swaths of it that remain unfinished to a proper degree. Pushing out a new island, especially one that carries over all the base experience’s problems, feels like an exercise in futility.
Only time will tell whether or not EXILES can overcome its foundational issues or if SIPTAH is the first of many patches to a foundation never properly laid out in the first place.
(11 Bit Studios, October 2020. Reviewed on PC.)
One of my favorite games of 2019 continued its life well into 2020, finally wrapping up with a devastating and brilliant expansion pack late last year.
Set in an alternate 1800s, a time when volcanic eruptions and the resulting climate change have ushered in a new ice age, FROSTPUNK finds humankind slowly dwindling into nothingness. You take the role of leader to a small tribe, who’ve found shelter enough to establish the kindlings of a new home. As you expand, you build your steampunk capital into a semi-working society, complete with problems of its own, as you look into the frozen wastes for other survivors.
The entire game is bleak beyond description, a harrowing experience in a slow, inevitable death, where the best you can hope for is prolonging life for a season more. It’s not fun, but it is captivating and emotionally compelling at every turn. In terms of creating a working universe, FROSTPUNK is one of the most notable achievements in art and narrative design I’ve seen in years.
ON THE EDGE, the final expansion pack, continues the main story in pushing the survivors further into the wilds. With a new outpost at hand, the survivors must brave the harsh climate without the life-giving generator found in the base game. The lack of a heart changes the way FROSTPUNK plays out drastically, and the new additions to the gameplay are welcome.
That said, my favorite part of the game remains the Endless Mode. True to its name, it drops you in a neverending winter, where the conclusion is predetermined, and your only task is to hold out as long as possible. It’s a bittersweet, haunting experience, one of the best a game can deliver, as you build your society ever hopeful that something may come of it. Then, as a hellish blizzard warps the landscape and you have to start over, you realize it was all but a dream of spring.
(Slipgate Ironworks, October 27.2020. Reviewed on PC.)
Released under the hype of the massive CYBERPUNK 2077, GHOSTRUNNER snuck by without much fanfare, only emerge later on as the better, more rewarding sci-fi game of the year.
Like a lovechild between MIRROR’S EDGE and JUDGE DREDD, GHOSTRUNNER is a hard-as-nails, super fast-paced first-person action platformer with combat elements. That’s a mouthful, and it’s best noted right off the bat that it doesn’t nail each of the ambitious parts it packs on.
The platforming is graceful and rewarding, continually asking more from you as it teaches new mechanics and introduces more challenging environments. On the flip side, the combat is a dull chore. And their marriage, one that ties to the very center of the gameplay experience, is chaotic at best. The former is finely tuned, exciting, and easy to balance while following the engaging narrative; the latter feels like an afterthought, which brings the game to a halt every time a new scenario comes up.
It doesn’t help that there is a one-hit kill mechanic, where you die the instant a random bullet so much as grazes you. Feedback from enemy weapons is marginal at best, leaving you guessing who shot and when far too often, and trying to balance the jumping, sliding, and running with fiddly swordplay never seems to work as well as it may have demoed.
Luckily the narrative driving the action is confidently told, well-written, and entirely captivating. As you climb Dharma Tower, humanity’s last shelter after a global apocalypse, you witness the vertical hierarchy of late-stage capitalism running rampant. Your goal is to find the person behind all the misery, but as the voices in your head, both AI and compatriot reaching you via communicators, fight for your allegiance, lines quickly become blurred. After all, in a dog-eat-dog world, who can you trust when there isn’t enough space on the lifeboats for everyone?
Problems aside, GHOSTRUNNER is an impeccable addition to the cyberpunk genre. While the gameplay suffers from a too ambitious net cast way too wide, the big picture is easy to recommend thanks to an impeccable presentation and a killer plot that leaves you guessing until the bombastic finale.
CHRONOS: BEFORE THE ASHES
(Gunfire Games, December 1st 2020. Reviewed on PC.)
Ever since DEMON’S SOULS broke the bank by refining the action-RPG to near perfection, developers have been in a raging war of king-of-the-hill to see who makes the next big thing in the Souls-like sub-genre.
Now, developer Gunfire Games takes a swing at the title with their ambitious and impressive, but also unfortunately shallow and short installment that nonetheless is a worthwhile addition to the genre.
The accolades it deserves all stem from its excellent aging mechanic, making the game feel epic and majestic. You start the game as a barely adult of 18, setting off from your tribe to find a mythic monster that emerges only once a year. Should you fail in your quest into the otherworldly ruins, you return to your homeworld, where an entire year must pass before you can try again. Over the years, your youthful strength withers away, and in its place comes magic and knowledge of the arcane that you cultivate into your twilight years.
This is a wonderful idea, especially for a rogue-lite game, where death is part of the natural cycle. Regrettably, a lot of it remains shallow, with only some stat changes affecting the play style – but the basic foundation is excellent. I’d love to see this developed further in a sequel, where not just age but time and its effects on the world around you was more prominent.
The fairy-tale-like storytelling is also a high point, effectively setting CHRONOS away from the grimdark variants that plague this genre. The ruined castles and treetop cities come packed with stories of tragic love affairs, kidnapped princesses, cursed kings, and a world fate hanging in the balance between good and evil. It’s all delightfully straight-faced and irony-free, which makes me love it even more.
But, again, sadly, the world is surprisingly barren, with very few NPC’s to bolster the story. The few that you do meet have only a handful of lines between them, and it leaves the charming base strangely empty. It’s true that the emphasis in these types of games is on exploration and combat, but CHRONOS tells such an engaging story I wish it dared to break from the mold even further.
That’s also because the other aspects, like the puzzle mechanics, just aren’t there right now, and what little there are works, well, less than great, to be kind. It’s not like the game comes riddled with them, but even a few are enough to break the immersion, leaving you wandering back and forth looking for poorly designed clues.
Such it is with the mini-bosses and actual main boss battles, each of which feels like a chore in the worst kind of way. Combat itself is fine, with easily telegraphed attacks and a decent amount of feedback to indicate when you’ve hit something, but everything else is a mess. The enemy types are repetitive yet unclear, and the final boss especially stands out as a better idea than the final product.
And yet, I have to give the developers a hand for their insistence on trying something new. While CHRONOS doesn’t quite get there, it’s such a unique take on the genre that it deserves an audience. There’s a great first attempt here, one that I hope finds even more life in a sequel. If only Gunfire Games this time realizes they don’t need to copy the Souls-like experience – they’ve found their specialty, one that is a diamond in the rough.