It is that time of year! The occasion I write a ton of game reviews and talk about the past twelve months in gaming. We've got a big event ahead, and this is the first part: Best of Early Access! In this two parter, I cover some amazing games in development, give them a go!
GOTY 2023: Best of Early Access (Part 2)
Previous Bite Sized Reviews: Tribe: Primitive Builder
GOTY 2023: Best of Early Access (Part 1)
The end of another year is nearly upon us, and we know what that means. It’s time for another Game of the Year series! I’ve made no major changes to my schedule or rule-set for 2023. This is almost identical to last year’s event.
What an odd year it has been. We’ve had some insane game releases, as well as enormous disasters. It’s been a see-saw year for the gaming industry, and it is vital to remember that amongst all the successes, dozens of studios are under enormous strain. It’s a hard time for a game developer, and that chasm will probably widen into 2024. This end-of-the-year series is to help look into all the games that made this year great, but I will touch upon the growing job losses near the end of this series. It’s tough, and I hope for my fellow developers in the industry we can all get through the dark tunnel.
So, this is my first part of 2023’s event — the Early Access games. Always a controversial part of game development, there have been some pretty cool examples. Like last year, I’m sticking to them as a desperate list. In previous years, I allowed Early Access games to be eligible for my overall Top 10, but since I’ve had 24 games fighting for a Top 10 spot, I’m not changing my stance! I’ve played a lot of different games in 2023, and I can’t wait to talk about them. Some are reviews I’ve been delayed writing for too long — my apologies for that!
Only games that were released in Early Access this year and are currently still in Early Access will count for this category.
Shadows of Doubt
One of my most anticipated games of 2023, Shadows of Doubt left a lasting impression on me long after its launch. It feels like forever ago that it came out, but that is natural for how insane this year has been for gaming — for better and worse.
I featured Shadows of Doubt in Episode 34 of my Indie Corner series, and you can check that out by clicking on the link down below:
My feelings on Shadows of Doubt are identical to my impressions back then. This is a fantastic idea wrapped up in a solid package, but performance continues to be the greatest question mark. This is Early Access, so rough edges are to be expected. Of course, going by how many games launch, Early Access seems to be the norm. Looking at you, Cities Skylines 2.
Creating cities in video games is a brutal challenge, with so many things to balance. How do we create a realistic settlement that contains interesting things to see and explore while maintaining player freedom? It might be one of the most difficult settings to get ‘right’, and we’ve yet to find the perfect city. Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City has fantastic visual and technical design, although the criticisms about the lack of interaction in its open world still have merit. There’s enough to do in the city, but I think we’d all like more things to do. We need to get modders for that, as the massive 2.0 update and Phantom Liberty was the last major update for CDPR’s notorious, often brilliant, and challenging game. More about that later in the series.
Shadows of Doubt grabbed me for their bold attempt to create a true simulated city. Every building and every room can be entered and explored with the procedurally generated engine. Like Todd Howard’s Skyrim talk many years ago, you see that skyscraper? You can go inside it. While Shadows of Doubt plays more like an immersive detective sim, it adds enough roleplaying features to make just exploration a deeply enjoyable experience. Despite the pitfalls of procedural generation, they work well in this game.
Notorious for its early performance issues and jank, Shadows of Doubt has received frequent performance fixes since launch, including some more gameplay and content changes. While we’re a while away from the final product, there isn’t another game like Shadows of Doubt on the market. Give this game a shot if you haven’t already. This is a potential game-changer in the making and deserves a spot on my Best of Early Access list.
One of the most ambitious games I’ve ever seen, Spacebourne 2 captivated me ever since its launch in February. Not for its quality — this is an incredibly janky game with a lot of placeholder stuff in it — but for what the developer is trying to achieve. I covered Spacebourne 2 earlier this year, and you can check those impressions out below:
Open-ended space RPGs might be the most difficult genre out there today. Even in our current industry, I cannot think of a single title that has nailed the formula. We’ve got loads — Starfield, Elite Dangerous, Mass Effect, X4: Foundations, No Man’s Sky, Everspace 2, and Star Citizen are just a few examples — and Spacebourne 2 is trying to compete against all those. Ever since Starfield’s controversial development and launch, we’ve seen growing criticism for Bethesda’s attempt at an open-space RPG. From its over-reliance on proc-gen planets, repeated places of interest with poor generation, frequent loading screens and the typical Bethesda choices, Starfield was always going to be polarizing. I’ve played about 50 hours of Starfield across Steam and Game Pass. While I enjoy the game, it is a dated design with some bizarre choices. However, every example I’ve listed comes with major flaws, just like Starfield. Spacebourne 2 is unique alongside these in that it is a solo project — the equivalent of a cluster of colourblind hedgehogs trying to fight an elephant.
Spacebourne 2 boasts an enormous world with free-flying anywhere, an extensive story and a ton of different things to do, despite all the rough edges to it. This is an Early Access game through and through, and while I’ve been frustrated at times by the bugs, the lack of true detail in planet generation, the occasional crash and the incomplete mechanics, it has never stopped me from enjoying myself. It’s probably the buggiest game I’ve covered in this year’s selection, but the sheer ambition and courage I’ve witnessed deserves attention.
Path of Achra
Yet another review that I’ve delayed far too long in writing because Path of Achra is one of the coolest games I’ve played this year. The work of a single developer in Ulfsire, I’ve followed his development progress on Twitter all year. No, we’re calling it Twitter. X is a stupid name. Path of Achra won’t win any awards for graphics, but please don’t let that put you off. This game is a masterpiece. All the same, it doesn’t feel like an early-access title, and if you’re bored of the usual roguelikes, I recommend giving this a try.
Another turn-based game, Path of Achra boasts extraordinary character customization and hundreds of powerful abilities to create an addictive experience. It’s one of those games that rewards extreme creativity and design. Want to make an incredibly slow, bulky warrior that sets fire to everything it walks on? Maybe a necromancer who can teleport? Maybe a bone mage, or someone who cannot move for shit, but has extreme blocking ability? The possibilities are endless. This is a challenging game that throws all sorts of deadly mobs and bosses at the player, but you have so many options and tools that it feels fair. One of my favourite ways of fighting is to dump a ton of my skills into Willpower — allowing me to summon a horde of followers to fight for me. I’m lazy during my game goals, you see.
Alongside the expansive skill tree, there are tons of different weapons and armour pieces that offer abilities too, all randomized per play through. When combined, this allows for some truly bonkers loadouts. Path of Achra is brutal, diverse, and brilliant. My biggest surprise was how cheap it was. For £8.50 or ten dollars, players get a formidable game. It should cost more. I’m glad it doesn’t, but that is a testament to how much I enjoy this game. It is brilliant, go buy it.
Big Ambitions may as well be called ‘Capitalism Simulator 2023’, but it’s a damn impressive game that’s seized me by the balls since release. Developed by Hovgaard Games and launching in March 2023, Big Ambitions fits its given name — an energetic management sim with a lot of heart. Starting in the Big Apple with your tycoon uncle as your support, and a small loan of not a million dollars, players are given the chance to take over New York City. Simple enough, but there are a ton of things to manage.
That’s just as well for a complex tycoon sandbox! Big Ambitions allows players to tailor and customize almost everything about their business. Starting small in a crap apartment, I began my journey starting my first job in a supermarket. Cheerful, I know! There are a couple of game modes, including a highly customizable sandbox mode once you’ve learned the ropes. I recommend the tutorial, because there is a crapton of stuff to learn in this game, and the guided tutorial does a fantastic job of teaching you how to play. Once the basics are learned, feel free to start a new game. There is a solid game codex included for any information you might need.
After getting a job, things develop quickly. Buy and rent out places for business schemes, with dozens of options available. Hire gremlins to do your work for you while paying them as low as you can get away with, so the usual! All the while, players have to manage their energy, finances, and food levels while exploring the big city. It sounds like a ton of micromanagement at first — and it is — but this improves as you unlock more content and automation options. The more successful and optimized your supply lines become the more money rolls in.
Part life-sim, part business manager, Big Ambitions was a shoo-in on my Best of Early Access list from the start. It might get a bit buggy, and I wish it ran better on the Steam Deck, but the depth of its mechanics and wealth of content make this an excellent choice for anyone who is even remotely interested in this genre.
Take Kenshi and Mount and Blade — two of the most interesting indie games of the last decade —- stick them into a blender with some cool fantasy worldbuilding, and you get The Bloodline. Ever since I played the demo of this game last year, I have waited longingly for the launch.
Releasing in early October on Steam Early Access, The Bloodline takes all sorts of things I love about video games and shoves them all into a big pot. This is an ambitious title that’s trying to accomplish something larger studios struggle with, all the work of a single developer. Boasting a wide, non-linear open world with tons of cute interactive tricks and some impressive combat, The Bloodline punches significantly above its weight class. Despite struggles with optimization and some gnarly bugs, it became one of my favourite early-access games of 2023.
Unlike many first-person RPGs, The Bloodline focuses more on the open sandbox aspects. After a quick introduction to the game’s mechanics and completing a little quest (killing a bunch of goblins), you are offered a loose story to follow as the Harbinger. Besides that, the vast world is open from the start, and I was surprised by the variety of activities available. Build up a town however you see fit, or explore the world and take on missions. The overworld is like Mount and Blade — move the little character around the vast world to enter in-game locations like towns and cities. In many areas, you can set up camp to explore the region in greater detail, similar to how the Stalker games handle their open world. There’s no shortage of things to do, backed up by a solid combat system. Hell, you can even build things in these zone maps, and I made myself a happy little fort when I sat down after a hard day of killing people.
Many of these indie RPGs struggle in combat, but The Bloodline bucks this trend, and swordsmanship is a delight with fast movement mechanics. Fighting enemies is a delight in close combat, complimented by the usual ranged weapons and magic in fantasy RPGs. I haven’t delved much into the skill trees yet, but there’s more than enough there for most people.
As an early-access game, it’s not perfect. Optimization needs to be a high priority, with many people reporting issues even on more powerful hardware, and I ran into a few bugs and long loading screens. The quests are more cookie-cutter, open-world design we’re all used to, although this might be from my early impressions. This is a big game so mission variety will likely widen as I dig more into it. Some people might get turned away by the graphics: it feels a little like that Playmobil mod for Skyrim from a few years ago. I quite like the visuals, and some of the environments are rather pleasant.
I’m excited to see how The Bloodline develops in the coming months.