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Let us kick off 2021 properly! I hope everyone is doing well in the runup to Christmas.
In the last article I talked about my favourite Early Access titles of the year, which you can check out here:
Today, I’d like to show off some of the games which missed out on my Top 10 cut. Most of these are simply down to making the numbers.
There were so many games that making a shortlist was a challenge! At one point, I had over twenty games for this category. I might do a final article later on to talk about some of the ones I’ve left out, but I had to make some tough cuts, otherwise these articles would be 10,000 words a piece, and nobody will read anything that long. I decided to cover five games today, but I will likely talk about the others I missed.
Let’s kick things off!
Out of all the games which missed my Top 10 this year, this may be the most painful.
In describing my experiences with it to a friend, I called it ‘the best game in 2021 I do not enjoy.’ Which is as honest a review as I can give it. I’ve rarely played a more unique and engrossing game this year. If someone can’t enjoy a game, it doesn’t matter how good it is, and this is where Highfleet fell short for me.
Highfleet is the work of a single guy in Konstantin Koshutin published by a nostalgic giant, MicroProse. They’ve come back in force this year, releasing Highfleet and another game called Carrier Command 2 which I plan to try out at some point. Highfleet has built up quite the cult following and solid positive reviews on Steam.
Highfleet is blessed by incredible visual and sound design. Old-school at the heart, I can almost breathe in the sands of this war-torn, desert dieselpunk world. As the commander of the Saydai Task Force, you’re on the back foot immediately in a rebellion rapidly out of control, in a world where every moment counts. The Kingdom of Gerat is breaking, and the game does a splendid job introducing me to the world. It’s interface is like commanding from an airship, adding to the immersion. It’s dieselpunk Dune.
It’s a highly dedicated strategy game that focuses on the most important parts of war: logistics, guerrilla warfare and resource management. So many things in media completely ignore this. In Highfleet, there are ships to constantly maintain and refuel, places to scout out (death squads can and will fuck your world up if you don’t avoid them), and even landing places requires physical guiding through wind resistance and weather. There’s so many little things like this which helps the game’s immersion.
After a short prologue mini-campaign to help teach you the ropes, you’re thrown into the menace of Gerat in a complex, grueling roguelike. Despite the excellent story, the main game doesn’t really expand on it further which was a disappointment. The game is extremely difficult, and despite the tutorial and an excellent PDF guide, it could explain things better in-game.
Combat is a brutal experience, working as an arcade shooter with no room for error. Resources count, and fuel/ammo is always expendable. While a large fleet is doable, I quickly found I can only control one ship at a time while the enemy will often through multiple ships at once. Other games can command multiple ships well like Starsector, so I wish it was implemented better. Despite the brutal combat, I quite enjoyed it and every victory felt earned.
Highfleet also comes with a fully fledged ship editor. There’s tons of different ship parts, engines and weapons to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Not only can you make your own ships from scratch in this mode, you can test them in combat free of harm from your suppression campaign. It’s a great feature, without which I think the game would be almost unplayable.
All of this sounds good, right? And it is. Unfortunately I got burnt out with a lot of Highfleet’s frustrating quirks. Up until very recently there was no reliable save feature (This was added in an ‘easy mode’ in a recent update, but it doesn’t improve it too much). I usually don’t mind this, but in a game this difficult and with so much focus on failure, it got grating after a while. The game’s incredible punishment requires a lot of trial and error, and there’s other, more fundamental issues. Highfleet is janky and archaic.
There are no way to change your keybindings, few graphics options, and the framerate is locked to 50FPS. (A recent patch has fixed this, but why wasn’t this in the game at launch?) There are a couple of stutters here and there which is surprising for a game this visually simple, and the already mentioned saving system is a mess.
There was one bug which erases save files, and it’s this one which finally broke me. I was doing my best campaign yet. Resources were good. I was no longer the struggling tiger. After one challenging battle where I think my game saved, I took a break. When I returned to the game, the save was gone. Kaboom. All I had was New Game. To make matters worse, all the gold bonuses I had accumulated were gone as well. With that, I stopped playing it.
However, I’m not going to put too much blame on the core design. It’s not Highfleet’s fault directly I couldn’t get to grips with the difficulty. Yeah, it’s hard to recommend for the casual market, but it’s an immersive and often brilliant game at heart. I want to give the game more of a chance in the future. There’s a lot of depth and it’s a truly fresh experience. There’s no comparable game on the market right now.
In another world, this might have been a GOTY contender. Sadly, it’s not the case for me, but I think it would be criminal to not bring it up in Honorable Mentions. It’s already a cult classic.
New Pokemon Snap
Pokemon is probably the most dominant gaming franchise in existence. It continues to hold billions in its greasy, cute grip, and in April we got a new Pokemon Snap game! Pokemon’s been in a weird place recently, with more controversy with each generation. Sword and Shield was by far the most divisive in the series yet, and at times feels like a rushed cash-grab with poor design.
Generation Eight suffered from terrible route design, bad performance and a lazy story, all the symptoms of rushed development. With two more Pokemon mainstream games due to release at some point in 2021 and 2022, people are rightly concerned how this will go. Let’s hope they do improve. Personally I was able to enjoy Sword and Shield quite a lot despite their significant problems, but it was a serious downgrade on previous generations
Pokemon Snap was originally a 1999 release on the Nintendo 64, and was one of the most highly anticipated releases in years. People jumped on it like I do whenever I’m presented with chicken.
How does Pokemon’s latest giant hold up? Honestly, it’s better than I expected. Game Freak had nothing to do with this one, and that’s a good thing. Animation and charm are the winners of Pokemon Snap, and it feels wonderful to play. Starting off as a small, plucky Pokemon photographer, they join up with Professor Mirror and his assistants Rita and Phil in the chill Lental Region.
With twenty stages and seven areas in the base release (with more added as generous post-launch support), the game functions the same as its predecessor as an on-rail shooter, a snapping contest. While I wished it had more open world elements (like a certain similar game I’ll be covering!) I can’t complain much. The environment and Pokemon animations are fantastic, and it really feels alive. It feels like a nature reserve.
Sure, I found the game a little grindy and it could have done with more innovation than the N64 variant, I still found the new Pokemon Snap a worthy game to play, and it deserves an honorable mention at the very least.
It’s very rare to see good scifi RPGs in the gaming market.
Encased originally released in 2019 in Steam Early Access, and was the product of many veterans in the RPG industry. Made by Dark Crystal Games, it hit the ground running with an impressive introduction. Encased feels a lot like a modern version of Fallout 2, rich with world detail. We don’t get many games like this anymore, and the best example of an old-school RPG in the last few years is either Disco Elysium or the new Pathfinder games. Note, Wrath of the Righteous was a game I was considering for my list this year, but it’s still in a very rough state and I haven’t had the time to go into it much. 100 hour+ games are getting harder for me to delve into.
Encased has had a troubling development cycle, and as close as this year I feared it would never complete. However, the devs made good work in reviving the project, and the game left Early Access on the 7th September. The result is a tight, flexible RPG with a ton of freedom in how to play it, and I was left surprised and pleased how solid it is overall. With many ways to play the game, the differing factions, playstyles, there’s a lot of room to play.
The story is relatively straightforward. Enrolling in one of the five wings of the CRONUS Corporation, I begin my journey as a simple employee under the Dome, setting off on a simple mission. This quickly takes me on a journey of disaster as I became the catalyst of a scientific catastrophe what’s known as ‘The Incident’ or the Maelstrom. Set in a futuristic, Fallout-ish apocalyptic world, all of the joys of that game design are at the forfront, with a ton of options and ways to play the game. Encased benefits from current technology – the game looks a delight to the eyes, even if an isometric RPG doesn’t need the best graphics in the world to be enjoyable. This combination of present day tech and old-school design combines well. Death Trash is probably the best example of that right now, but Encased does nicely as well. There’s voice acting for the full main quest, and it’s reasonably well done. I wish everything was voice acted of course, but we can’t have everything.
Despite a strong start, I did find a few issues, and it’s the reason Encased sits in the honorable mentions category rather than a Top 10 finish. I wish some of the later game locations had more things to do; they felt a little rushed. In fact, most of the final act feels like a rush job, and the drop in quality is markable. I also found the fatigue mechanic tedious rather than enjoyable. I understand why it’s in the game, but I feel it’s more of a hinderance than a help. This alongside things like broken stealth (there is virtually no punishment for using stealth, making it fun yet unrewarding), medicore turn based combat and frequent battle events as I travelled through the world forcing me into combat did turn me off the game.
Regardless, I’m enjoying my time with Encased. It’s not perfect by any means and it still needs some work, but I think it’s a good scifi experience nonetheless. There’s so much freedom and ways to explore the game, especially in the first half where I think I’ll like many different playthroughs to figure it all out, even if the final result is a more muddy reception.
There’s always a time when a game surprises me out of nowhere.
I often struggle with 4X style games because of the sheer amount of time that’s often needed to get into them. It’s also why I’ve struggled with stuff like Stellaris. Slipways bucks this trend, however.
Sure, it’s hard to call Slipways a 4X game, or even a dedicated strategy game. It plays out more as a puzzle game, similar to stuff like Baba is You. It takes the spacefaring sim and breaks it down to its most basic parts. It’s simple, but with a learning curve that doesn’t prove to be overwhelming. The result is a tight, engrossing game that really impressed me. It was in my Top 10 for several weeks, with only a few recent acquisitions pushing it into the honorable mentions category. Don’t get me wrong, though. This game is awesome, perfect for any gamer.
It’s a trading game, at heart. Starting off with a single planet, the goal is to build up an empire of trading resources, gathering income and managing popularity to score points. There’s a time limit of 25 years, with every move taking up a single month. There are rewinds, but you can only do this so much, and any move which exposes more of the map cannot be taken back. So every movement is a gamble, and it’s a matter of managing the different resources in the empire, ensuring that trade networks are efficient, making sure not to run out of money with planet upkeep and above all, keeping up popularity. There are many ways to affect this, ranging from overpopulation, lack of imports and exports, and so on. The perfect system is one where nothing is wasted, and it takes a while to learn. With several factions to back, all with their own quirks and bonuses, as well as research to unlock, there’s a lot to uncover.
It’s challenging in the best way. You have complete control over the game, with no enemies to hold back progress. I’ve lost many times, but every time I lost, I learned more. There’s plenty of content as well, with a campaign exploring more complex resources and objectives, timed modes and sandbox. Slipways is easily one of the most underrated games of 2021, and it’s a delight to play.
This is the latest addition to my GOTY discussions this year, but it’s for good reason. This game is a delight to play, even if I haven’t played it as much as I would like.
With the exception of 2020’s indie game Traveller’s Rest, we don’t really get tavern sims, let alone good ones. Crossroads Inn is probably the most high profile 3D disaster, a game which had good ideas, but plagued by bugs, broken features and an attempt to monetize DLC. It’s a mess. This is the first 3D tavern builder which shows real promise!
I like Traveller’s Rest a lot. It even made my Top 10 last year though it has its flaws, mainly being it’s tedious micromanagement in the early game. So when I heard of Tavern Master, I leapt onto it like I do when I’m presented with chicken nuggets. I’m happy I did, because Tavern Master might end up being the quintessential tavern building game on the market. It’s more of a preview than a full review, but I’ve played enough to put it into this category. It’s oozing with more potential of what’s already a good game.
The result of 18 months hard work by a single developer, Tavern Master released on the 16th November to quite a lot of hype. After playing it, I’m impressed. And it takes a lot to impress me.
Tavern Master has a great visual design as well as easy to pick up gameplay. doesn’t try to do too much, and the tutorial is easy to follow. I never got bogged down in micromanagement, which is a great thing for simulation games.
The animation and graphic design is also charming. Seeing all the little guys walk around and do their job is rather enjoyable, and what surprises me is how polished everything feels. There’s a good reason why tavern simulators are rare in the market: this is hard to pull off. Tavern Master’s dev made the excellent move of releasing it as a full, polished experience off the mark and not as an Early Access title. This extra time taken into the development has paid off, because performance is impressive, and the game is surprisingly well optimized to boot for a Unity engine game.
The game’s concept is simple: manage your tavern, hire staff to keep the booze and food going, get ingredients and keep the customers happy. There’s enough variance and complexity to keep it entertaining, while simple enough to not frustrate. With little events like thieves breaking in to try and steal your hard earned booze, there’s enough for everyone.
There are two modes: the primary mode which serves as a tutorial and progression for the main game, and a sandbox mode. The progression system is very well done: every day you get little quests, upon which you get points for completing them. Research unlocks plenty of items and events to add to the growing tavern, giving you a reason to keep exploring.
Customization is the name of the game for Tavern Master, and it’s my favourite feature. There’s complete freedom to build the tavern the way you want, with customization options that can challenge even House Flipper for designing the place the way you want it. Of course, there will be ways to metagame the development for maximum profits, but I’m really enjoying the treat of building something up and making it my own.
Early days yet, but Tavern Master is looking really promising. It deserves the very late entry into my GOTY discussions. Perhaps if I had enough time, we would be looking at a Top 10, but I like it a lot, and there’s plenty more to come. Expect things from this in the weeks and months to come.
That’s it for now! I had several options for additions this year. Games like Everspace 2, Black Book and Drox Operative 2 impressed me as well, and I may still cover them in a future article, but I decided to keep it to a simple five nominations this time around. Join me next time, because we’ll be covering the first half of the Top 10!