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It’s been another long and difficult year, but I’m back with my usual annual smorgasbord of gaming articles! This is the first of a planned six part series!

I’ve come to imagine 2021 as a true defining year for good Early Access games. Last year was pretty damn good too, but I’ve found the ones this year to be truly special. There’s a decent argument for several of this list to be a GOTY candidate. It makes me wish I could fit more than seven on my list. I think I’m pushing it with that number already.

Introduction

The term ‘Early Access’ is a bit of a controversial one, and it has been for many years. The concept of paying money to effectively beta test a video game has always been contentious for many people, but I’ve always believed it’s been a positive thing for the industry. Sure, the challenges and risks always exist. What if the game loses its original vision? Perhaps it’ll get abandoned, perhaps it’ll just die. All of these have happened in the past, with disasters sullying the Early Access design. There’s been one in 2021 already with the disappointing collapse of Distant Kingdoms, an ambitious and interesting title which was turned out to be a gigantic flop. However, I’ve long been a supporter of these games. Sure, I prefer to play a complete game, but I like giving feedback during development and seeing how a game evolves.

Only three of these will be allowed to join my Top 10. That’s a serious challenge, and it’s been the toughest task of all. It was difficult enough to narrow it down to the seven I’m covering today. I had twelve on my shortlist!

Death Trash

Kicking things off with an excellent example of how Early Access should be done, I present Death Trash. What happens when you combine the old school brilliance of games like Fallout 1 and 2 with present day controls and technology? You get this.

Death Trash is fairly early in development, and while it may have less content than other games in this category, it’s impressed me by its polish. I usually find it hard to recommend story-based games in Early Access due to frequent restarts and not wanting to spoil myself early on (Looking at you, Baldurs Gate 3!), Death Trash has kicked my rules to splinters. It is a brilliant game.

Created by a single man in Stephan Hövelbrinks, Death Trash is an impressive rebirth of old-school games. One problem with the classics is that they haven’t aged well, and they are pretty frustrating to play in the present day. Death Trash gets around this by focusing on a real-time, fluid combat system, quality of life features like saving anytime and tight controls. Set in a twisted, vile Lovecraftian style world, Death Trash throws the player into the world as an outcast by the machine menace, leaving you on a journey of self discovery and survival. With its great visual design and tight gameplay, Death Trash oozes charm.

The quests, while simple, can be completed in multiple ways. The dialogue is snappy, intelligent and doesn’t waste your time, something other RPGs could learn a lesson from with their essays.

The current version of the game has many locations to explore and several quests, though the main story is only around 30% complete right now. Even though there’s around 6-7 hours content right now, there’s a decent amount to. There’s also different ways to play with permadeath and pacifist options. It even has local co-op support.

I found very few bugs in my time with Death Trash, and had a blast playing it. The only negative thing to say is I wish I could play the full game right now, but there’s time for that, and I’d rather Stephan takes his time. You’re in very good hands with Death Trash. I predict by full release this game will join other indie elites such as Kenshi, Slay the Spire, Stardew Valley, Rimworld and Factorio. It’s that good.

Valheim

Moving onto one of early 2021’s biggest launches, we have Valheim. Holy moly on a cracker did this game take the world by storm! It feels almost criminal to exclude this from any GOTY discussions, so here I am, talking about it.

I’ve seen multiplayer survival sandbox games more times than I can count. For every success, there are countless failures, and even the ones that make it are divisive. Giants like Rust and DayZ are plagued with problems. Others, like Ark Survival Evolved, Space Engineers and No Man’s Sky have all had troubled development cycles that trouble it to this day, often because of poor developer decisions. Other common problems include bad optimization, server overload, mountains of glitches and bugs, and other players screwing each other other. That isn’t something I enjoyed.

I very rarely play multiplayer games, but Valheim got me over that hump and I’ve had a ton of fun with it. Developed by unknown developer Iron Gate AB, it was picked up by Coffee Stain Publishing. These guys have a flair for eying solid titles, including the excellent Satisfactory and Deep Rock Galactic. It’s not the perfect survival game for sure, and while it’s had its flaws, I’ve put in a ton of hours into Valheim, far more than many of its competitors. I’ve been obsessed with it for frequent periods this year, and I can see myself play more.

It’s a strange mix of good gameplay, nice visuals and other factors which drew me so much to this Norse survival. The character models aren’t great, but the lighting and environments are gorgeous, and they combine together to make a very pretty game. The game has some wonderful physics regarding destruction and chopping wood, to boot. The visual design is much better than you might think going in, and the excellent lighting does wonders for immersion.

The combat system is also quite fun. The movement and interface feels snappy, and reminds me a little of Gothic, Skyrim and Dark Souls all meshed together. There’s a ton of enemy types and the big boss battles are tough and enjoyable in equal measure.

Valheim has been a breath of fresh air. It’s rare to see a survival game as solid as it has been, and its seen enormous success with millions of copies sold. So successful in fact, it’s been a double edged sword. The devs had to scale back their roadmap to focus on bugfixing, and the game’s development has slowed considerably. Therefore the Hearth and Home update was pushed back to September, and probably not as big as some people hoped. Positive reception for the game has dwindled slightly as a result.

Regardless, it would be insane not to appreciate Valheim for what it’s achieved. With luck it will continue to grow. The fact it got me, someone who generally shuns co-op and multiplayer as a whole, into willingly play it, speaks volumes.

Dyson Sphere Program

What do you get when you cross Factorio and Kerbal Space Program with a dash of Astroneer? You get Dyson Sphere Program: a weird, yet well put together masterpiece by Youthcat Studio. We’ve been seeing some pretty damn cool games from China in recent years, with Sands of Salazar, this and Tales and Immortal. The nice thing about DSP is that it launched with a decent English translation, although the voice acting is a little stiff sometimes with that translation, but given how much dialogue there is, I’m not going to be too critical of it.

I was stunned by two things in this game. First, how addicting the gameplay is. Sure, Factorio is the equivalent of gaming crack, but I was blown away how easy it was to get into. Starting off on a simple planet, the game takes you through its tutorial of building up a factory. Playing as a mech is a delight in smooth controls, though constantly needing to fuel the movement can be a struggle at first. There’s a literal ton of upgrades to unlock and research, and this leads into the second great thing; just how much content there is in the game already. It’s one of the most complete early access titles I’ve seen. There’s probably hundreds of hours of content in this. Now, I haven’t been able to play too much of this game yet, so 20-25 hours isn’t enough to properly judge Dyson Sphere Program. It’s a bit like Factorio in that regard, a game which I did not make part of my Top 10 last year because 20 hours is nowhere near long enough to understand it properly.

Dyson Sphere Program has a couple of issues, mainly stemming from an uneven English translation which can be confusing at times as well as a steep, at times overwhelming learning curve. However, it’s not too bad. I can’t really find anything else, though. It’s a fantastic game with some great polish for a game this early in development, which has potential to get even better.

Dorfromantik

Chill. This sums up the lovely experience Dofromantik is. Dorfromantik is a casual strategy game where you join tiles together to build a landscape. Villages, forests, rivers, farms and train tracks, the world is your oyster. completing challenges gives you more tiles to use, and when you run out of tiles, you start over.

It’s beautifully simple and works very well. It reminds me a lot of Islanders, another big indie success. The two are very similar, but with Dorfromantiks latest improvements such as a creative mode and multiple save files, the latter has surpassed Islanders; quite a feat in itself. I have racked up over 100 hours so far, and it’s one of the games I’ve played most of this year.

The soundtrack matches the gameplay perfectly and it’s been my go to game when I need to sit back and relax. Listening to a podcast or zen music in the background while I solve these puzzles is a lovely way to pass the time. The base Hi-Score mode is easy to learn, but difficult to master, and is been an interesting journey of rinse and repeat. I do wish the game had an option where you could repeat the last turn if you make a mistake like Islanders, because it’s very easy to screw up. However, it’s not a major problem and it’s easy enough to just restart. Even failing is relaxing.

As much as I enjoy the high score mode, I find it difficult to rack up a big high score, and it does come down to RNG for what tiles come up. There’s a good amount of stuff to unlock though, so there’s a nice incentive to keep playing. This is a game which started slowly but is now part of my daily routine. Starting off the day with some coffee and Dorf before I kick off some writing really helps clear my head.

It’s the perfect game when I need some downtime. It’s addictive to play, has nice graphics, requires very little power to run and very cheap at 10$. It’s an auto-recommend for nearly everyone.

Timberborn

Colony sims and city builders come and go a lot, especially in the indie scene. It’s not quite as prevalent as the roguelike or deck-builder, but there’s been quite a few of them in the market. It really took off with Banished’s considerable success, and many other games have come up in recent years. It’s an interesting game type, because there’s a lot of variance. Foundation, Rimworld, Frostpunk and Kingdoms Reborn have all been successful in their own right, all of which have different quirks.

Timberborn’s quirks are beavers. And dams. That’s not all, of course. Timberborn released in Early Access on the 15th September this year after several months of polishing, and it was clearly the right move. Timberborn has been an immediate success with 95% positive reviews on Steam. I’ve found it both a unique and well polished experience so far, the latter of which is rare for many colony sims which release in Early Access. It looks great, plays nicely and has fewer performance issues than competitors. For example, Foundation, Kingdoms Reborn and Settlement Survival all run very hot on the CPU temperature in my experience, while Timberborn is a much lighter footprint.

Playing as a tribe of beavers, your goal is to survive the dry season. With a large array of different resources and buildings open to you, there’s a pleasure to the gameplay for me. It’s relaxing and wholesome to see the little beavers work, with an adjustable camera which allows you to get pretty close to the action. Managing wood and water income is the lifeblood of the colony, and the game gives plenty of ways to do that. On harder difficulty modes the game can be pretty challenging, and several of my opening playthroughs ended up in the horrific death of my little tribe. It’s tough, but not frustrating, which is a big thing for me. What often turns me off city-builders is managing the difficulty and resources. Timberborn is a nice balance in that.

It’s early days for Timberborn, but I’m impressed by what I’ve experienced so far. It might need more balancing and I hope mod support arrives sooner rather than later, but its a solid colony sim. I highly recommend it.

Suchart: Genius Artist Simulator

There are so few geniune art simulators out there, but Suchart is one of the best. It came out of the gates swinging, and it continues to impress me months after its release.

In January, they released a creative free demo, where you get a healthy slice of the game mechanics and a chance to play around with the tools for yourself. While this demo is limited by the number of commissions you get, you have plenty of time to see what the game is like.

I have to praise Voogli for how generous this demo is. It’s one of the most impressive demos I’ve seen in a while. There are financial reasons why they’re rare in gaming nowadays, but it’s great for the consumers to try it out first hand.

Suchart comes with an unlimited creative mode and a Story mode. Set in a futuristic sci-fi timeline where the galaxy is colonized by strange aliens, you are employed by the artistic talents in the year 2130. With your sibling to help you out, your life in this game revolves around your studio. Your goal? To create to your hearts content. That’s it. There’s no survival mechanics. All you do is make art, and the game excels.

The physics of the art tools are fantastic. It really feels like you’re painting in reality, without all the downsides. I’d love to paint but it’s both expensive and messy, and requires a lot of free space. I live in the equivalent of a cupboard, so there’s not much room to spread my creative wings besides a laptop. There’s so many different paints, pencils and options available to purchase, and in creative mode you start with everything unlocked.

In Story Mode, you get to build up your studio from humble beginnings into a fortune with commissions from clients, and as far as I know, these are unlimited, so there’s no end of the content. Once you’ve unlocked all the ranks, you’ll continue to get commissions forever, so you can keep playing and unlocking whatever you wish. My favourite part of the game is your own virtual studio where you can put up your favourite paintings and bring in even more money and fame. It’s a lovely example of progression and shows how far you’ve come.

You’re free to take as many or little commissions as you want, with no pressure or time constraints. The game’s design is geared a simple ideology: art is subjective and can never be bad. No matter what you make, your clients will like it and pay you, no questions asked. So don’t worry if your client’s wish to draw them an orange ends up looking like a cat.

While I adore this mechanic, it could be cool to have a more competitive mode where you are marked on accuracy. I like it’s not in the game by default because it may put many people off the game (more accessibility is a good thing!) but it might be something to look into for future updates. More options are great, but I don’t know how easy this would be to implement.

The game is also surprisingly well optimized for the physics. I played both the demo and the full game on a ‘Gaming laptop’, with GTX 1060 Max-Q 6GB graphics, Intel i7 8750H processor and 32gb ram, with the game installed on a SSD. It runs without problems at 60FPS on highest settings, no questions asked, and barely takes up 2gb storage. The game also runs well on integrated graphics, and I hit 30fps on high settings with the Intel HD 615 graphics chip. You may run into framerate problems when things get busier, though I haven’t been able to test it fully.

Unlike most games I’ve played this year, I can’t think of much to criticize. All I can think of are minor suggestions like the different difficulty modes and more content, which is on the way in the roadmap. It’s honestly a perfect example of what an artistic sim should be. It’s an artist’s dream, runs well and has a ton of content.

There is nothing else on the market that comes close to what Suchart! accomplishes.

Mech Armada

I thought long and hard what the final game would be. I had several options for this last slot. Everspace 2 is a high-quality release, Potion Craft is an excellent example of Kingdom Come Deliverance’s alchemy mechanic into a full experience, and The Last Spell was very close to making the list on atmosphere alone. However, I decided upon Mech Armada for the last game to showcase. It took me time to get into Mech Armada, but it really grew on me.

Releasing in August 10th, Mech Armada has enjoyed steady improvements. In a world where monsters threaten to break humanity, you are the last bastion of resistance, making an army of mechs to combat them. Think Pacific Rim, I guess? Well, it’s an impressive take on a roguelike and there is a ton of customization. I’ve always liked the idea of developing my own combat units from scratch. Impossible Creatures still remains to this day one of the best ideas of that, and Mech Armada feels similar. With tons of parts to unlock and swap, you can make some true behemoths on the battlefield. There are plenty of levels and five major boss battles to work through. The visuals are basic but they get the job done, and the interface is smooth. No complaints from me there!

This game can get pretty hard despite all these options available to the player. I initially struggled getting into the game at first because of this. Despite its relatively small graphic footprint, the optimization of the game was a little messy off the bat, and I experienced some problems with bugs and crashes. Fortunately this has been massively improved in later updates, with the CPU temp dropping significantly.

While this is a difficult game to push through sometimes, I never felt lost or frustrated like other games (looking at you, Highfleet). Every victory and defeat brings you closer to another part unlocked, and more tools to bring into battle. The sheer weight of options available to the player is quite impressive, and building mechs is a delight. The difficulty is steep, but never overwhelming, and it plays like a war of attrition. You unlock parts and upgrades with points and energy, but it’s a game of balance. Improve the mechs at the cost of resources, but what happens if they get destroyed? It’s a roguelike with a surprising focus on economy, which I really like.

What really changed this game in my eyes from a ‘pretty decent game’ to ‘holy shit this is getting good’ was a recent update which added Sandbox mode. In this unlimited run, the customization is through the roof. With all parts you have unlocked so far, the ability to change starting resources and able to start at any point, it was a great move by the developer. The world needs more sandbox modes in their games. Sometimes it’s nice to sit back and relax, and in this mode, the player can experiment to their hearts content. It’s not a complete God mode, there’s still resources to manage etc, but it’s a major improvement to the game.

Mech Armada like many others is early in development, and like every game has need of improvements. I wish the maps were larger with more objectives than just killing the enemy sometimes, just to add some variety. There’s also a game mechanic in standard mode which I’m not too keen on, a black wall of energy that instantly kills on touch. This forces the player to push forward and not camp. While this is a good idea in theory, the small map size makes this more of an annoyance than another strategic layer. Despite these niggles, I’ve been a growing fan of Mech Armada, and I hope it continues to improve.

That is all for this week. It’s already much longer than I intended it to be, but it was difficult enough narrowing it down to this few. Up to three of these games will be featured in my Top 10. Can you guess which ones? We shall see.

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TheThousandScar

Author/Blogger/Cartographer/Streamer/Narrative Game Writer/I play far too many games. twitch.tv/diabound111 | thousandscarsblog.wordpress.com

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