GOTY 2023: Best of Early Access (Part 2)

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GOTY 2023: Best of Early Access (Part 2)

Welcome to the second part of my 2023 GOTY series! Previously, I discussed some of my favourite Early Access releases of the year. We’re continuing that today.

Read Part 1 by clicking on the link down below:

Cyber Knights: Flashpoint

Trese Brothers make cool games and are some of the most passionate developers I have ever seen in this industry. Star Traders: Frontiers was an old favourite of mine, long ago, with tons of content and new patches long after its final release. They are back with a new game, and Cyber Knights: Flashpoint is one of the coolest games I’ve played this year. And I’ve played a lot of games. Over 90 new releases this year… damn. Ahem, anyway.

Launching in October on Early Access, Cyber Knights: Flashpoint blends stealth, cyberpunk, and turn-based tactics into a competent package. Despite some early wriggles regarding bugs and performance, the brothers have been hard at work patching the game since launch — fixing bugs, tweaking content to player feedback and adding new scenarios. Early Access is challenging to navigate and has been a controversial development in the gaming industry for years. These guys are top of my list of developers to trust in an Early Access business model, and they’ve been knocking it out of the park. Cyber Knights: Flashpoint might be their most ambitious game yet, and judging from my time in it so far, it could even beat Star Traders: Frontiers.

Playing as a group of mercenaries in a brutal cyberpunk/space world, Cyber-Knights throws players into a combat scenario from the beginning, although the tutorials are plentiful. It plays like a classic stealth turn-based game like the Xcom model, although it comes with an awesome escalation system. While players can fight with all guns and cyberwear blazing, it is highly recommended to be sneaky. The more enemies are aware of the player’s snooping, the more bad things happen. This can involve reinforcements, activating more security devices, and cutting off lines of retreat. With the diverse character abilities and items available, this makes for an extensive collection of combat heists and scenarios. The stealth mechanics are well-designed as well. If you get spotted but kill the guard before his turn begins, you aren’t immediately bum-rushed by the enemy — although his mates will find the body at some point!

What drew me to Cyber Knights was the time during the missions, even if those were great times. There’s a slew of great worldbuilding and lore, character interactions, and things to do during the downtime between contracts. Call up experienced fixers for future favours, talk with your fellow gangsters, build up the hideout and carry out gigs. While Cyber Knights: Flashpoint is in early development, Trese Brothers have done a great job so far. There’s more than enough to chew over while they continue development, and the cyberpunk theme is a delight.

Do not sleep on this title. If their history has anything to say, Cyber Knights: Flashpoint has a promising future. It is already awesome.

USC: Counterforce

One of my favourite tactical RPGs, so it was a no-brainer to include USC: Counterforce in this list. Created by the awesome folks at Angry Cat Studios and published by Firesquid Games, USC: Counterforce was one of my most anticipated games for the year. It is rare these days for games to meet expectations. In this case, it might have exceeded my expectations! I wrote my impressions review on the game earlier this year, and you can check that out by clicking on the link down below.

I will not go into a deep dive this time — but I could not snub this game from my favourite early access list. USC: Counterforce always intrigued me as someone who loves tinkering with customization settings, deep tactical decisions, and all the ways you can optimize your squad, and USC offers all that in spades. There is a decent amount of content to get into, and with all the ways of customization, I’ve had a ton of fun playing it. For those interested in deep tactical games, this might be worth a look. Performance and interface still need some work, especially on the Steam Deck, but it is nonetheless an impressive extraction RPG that pushes above its weight.

It will take time for USC: Counterforce to reach its fullest potential, but I’m excited about what it can offer in the future.

Mars First: Logistics

A late addition to my list of favourite early-access games, Mars: First Logistics is both gorgeous and relaxing to play. Combining a cool sandbox/programming system with a great Martian setting and a visual design that reminds me of Sable, you get a fantastic early impression. There are many games like it on the market, but this might become my favourite over time. It’s a bit like Lego in space, and I am ready for that.

Steam reviewers seem to agree — with Mars sitting on over 95% positive reviews — not bad! I wasn’t able to play this game until very recently, and I am so glad I did. Big thanks to the developer and Keymailer for providing the review code! While this won’t be an in-depth review, it made my Best of Early Access list for good reason. Just enjoy my happy, Martian rambles.

I mentioned Sable because the visuals in Mars: First Logistics feel like a first cousin. This game is gorgeous to behold. Unlike Sable’s horrible performance problems, this game has no such technical issues — you can play this on a toaster. Controlling the little Mars rover is a delight across the expansive open world. In career mode, players roam across the Martian landscape, carrying out jobs by building increasingly more complex machines. With the rewards, more things are unlocked, allowing for grander designs.

The design mechanics might look daunting, but players get a ton of freedom in making their machines, with easy tools for building and programming different parts. Despite not being much of a wizard with making these robots in games (I am notoriously bad at it), I’ve grown to love designing machines in this. While the number of story missions in the current game is limited, exploring the procedurally generated landscape is a delight. With the additional creative mode, Steam Workshop support to download custom machines, and even cooperative mode, Mars: First Logistics is highly polished even in its current, Early Access state.

Mortal Sin

One consequence of my incredibly busy year — not playing great games quickly enough! Mortal Sin is one of those. Launching in March with frequent content updates ever since it took me longer to start than I would have liked. I am happy I waited, as I’ve been able to savour Mortal Sin at its best. I played the game a little at launch, but it has greatly improved since then. Not that it was not good at launch! It is just a development cycle things. Several months on, the developer Nikola has made waves, and my god, Mortal Sin is great.

When playing Mortal Sin for the first time, one will be drawn in by its unique art style. This is a dark, brutal world of horror and spirits, and the visual design is brilliant at emphasizing this cruel, combat roguelike. While I love the visuals, they threw me off a little at first. It’s not as offensive as Cruelty Squad, which is truly miserable to play at times due to its art choices (but it is another phenomenal game, try that out if you haven’t!), but Mortal Sin will take some getting used to at first. There are several ways to customize how everything looks, so if you get a headache in the default setting, at least things can be changed around. I got used to it after a while, allowing me to get stuck into Mortal Sin’s brilliant gameplay.

This is a fast, action-based horrorfest. With all sorts of deadly melee weapons to hack foes to pieces, Nikola has nailed the ‘fun’ aspect. This is a challenging game for certain, and expect to die a lot! However, you get many options and ways to approach the happy murder times, with large dungeons that can be completed in any order. With natural roguelikes, death is not the end, offering more unlocks and ways to play.

It also plays great on handheld PCs like the Steam Deck! Mortal Sin is one of the best roguelikes on the market right now, and I can’t wait to see how Nikola continues to improve it.

Tiny Life

The Sims series is one of those games that I’m amazed haven’t had competitors. While this series is among the greatest-selling video games of all time, it is notorious for its monetization model. Spending £600 plus on a single video game sucks. Fortunately, there are a few titles that hope to challenge Maxis and their monopoly on the genre. Life By You is scheduled for a 2024 launch. Published by Paradox, it’s shaping up to be a promising competitor. Then there is Paralives, a small indie project that’s still in alpha development. Hopefully, we’ll be able to play that game at some point!

Today, however, is not about either of those games. This is Tiny Life — a pixel-art life sim influenced by the Sims series. Developed by Ellpack Games, this is a gorgeous little game. You can check out the interview I held with them here:

We need more games like this, and Tiny Life is wonderfully realized. It feels like the original Sims 1 reborn — only that it has no problems running on modern hardware. Seriously, I’ve had so many headaches trying to get the first Sims game to run on my machine. None of those issues here — and more recently, Tiny Life received full controller support and Steam Deck compatibility. I’ll get into that a little later. While Tiny Life is in Early Access, it already offers plenty of fun out of the box. While it may lack the complexity of some Sims mechanics, there’s a great game in here already. If you have played the Sims, you will know what to expect. Create characters, grab a plot of land, and make a living. Characters have a ton of ways to customize, and there are all sorts of decorations and appliances to pimp out your house. As with its heftier cousin, characters will interact with everything around them, take jobs, learn new skills, and develop relationships. Tiny Life ships with Steam Workshop support for all those lovely mod shenanigans, so there’s a trove of custom items and content to try out if that tickles your fancy.

Tiny Life also plays beautifully on the Steam Deck. Before the big controller update, Tiny Life played well enough besides needing to tweak control settings — a huge advantage the Steam Deck offers over other competitors in the handheld PC market. Now the full controller support is in, it runs out of the box, no questions asked. I experienced no problems with the controller setup, and moving around on-screen runs like a dream. Even better, it takes very little juice. I was able to achieve a steady 40FPS in Tiny Life on a 3W TDP with a 40HZ refresh rate. With these settings, you can comfortably play Tiny Life for over 6 hours on a single charge, which is pretty cool! It will likely run for even longer on the new OLED Steam Deck, but until I pick one up, I cannot test this out.

As with all Early Access games, these are in constant development, and things are unfinished. When I recommend Early Access titles, I make my judgment based on what’s currently available. I see little point judging based on what is promised, or what might happen. This is life, and things will go wrong! While Tiny Life could use more game mechanics and broader simulations, this is a promising early-access game with a lot to offer already. For the price point, you cannot go wrong with this.

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