Bard Rock Cafe Episode 20: Like a Boss
Previous Movie Review: Risen, 2021 - ★★½
Here we are: The Top 5! It’s been a long journey. It’s been more difficult writing this series than last year. It’s been a tough one both on my physical and mental health, but I’m pleased with how these have turned out all the same.
While I’ve been disappointed with the lacking AAA titles this year (and having played very few due to technology restrictions and money) It has been a fantastic year once again for the indie scene. It took me a long while to come up with my five favourite games of 2021, and it took even longer to rank them. 2022 is looking stacked for video games as the industry, like everything else, struggles with the ongoing pandemic. It’s important to remember the bigger picture when taking these things into account.
Without further ado, here are my Top 5 favourite games of 2021!
5. The Forgotten City
This originally began its life as a mod for Skyrim, and a pretty good one to boot. The questline concept was awesome: a hidden city with a deadly secret: break the laws set by a mysterious entity, and the price is death. For everyone. ‘The many will suffer for the sins of the one’. It’s similar to the stupid concept teachers had in school when they punish the whole class for one kid’s behavior. Except, you know. Dying and all. With it’s strong cast of characters, time loop mechanic and multiple endings, it became one of the best quest mods for Skyrim.
The only real flaw with The Forgotten City was that it felt out of place with Elder Scrolls lore. The mod creator, Modern Storyteller, spent several years painstakingly creating his own standalone game, with its own lore, improved design and countless other boons. The result of his efforts is plain to see. Releasing in July, it’s had critical acclaim. Over 3,300 reviews, 97% positive to boot. It’s one hell of an achievement.
What’s amazing is how far it’s come. Set in the Roman era, Forgotten City takes everything which made it great in the mod and ramps it up to a hundred. The character designs and voice acting are beautifully realized, the visual design is fantastic, and the way choices are driven by the player is better than most of what I’ve played this year. If you’ve played the mod, the story as a core is very similar in this version, but with enough changes and improvements to give it a worthy glance once more. The time loop mechanic is well realized, and there’s plenty of choices and options to complete quests. It doesn’t have a particularly high playtime, but a game like this doesn’t need it. It’s a memorable experience that everyone should play at least once.
4. The Riftbreaker
This game took me completely by surprise.
What was strange was I didn’t know anything about it until a few weeks before launch. Made by Exor Studios (the guys behind the X-Morph series), it released on Steam, Epic, GOG and on Xbox Game Pass on the 14th October.
I hadn’t played much of, if any of their games before, so Riftbreaker fell under the radar for me until I saw the demo, which granted a decent slice of game in the prologue. I played it, enjoyed the heck out of it, and picked up the full game as soon as I was able. The result is a delicious mix of genres and a delightful game to play, and I’m not surprised at all it’s this high up my Top 10 list.
Riftbreaker is a combination of base building, resource management and tower defense, with the tools of an Action-RPG as well as powerful survival traits. Setting up shop on an alien planet is difficult for anyone, and the task of Ashley S. Nowak is to colonize this planet for human use, all helped with the sentient, blunt AI mech suit, whom she deems: Mr Riggs. I recommend to anyone who is on the fence to pick up the free prologue and give it a go, as it gives a chunky slice of the game to try out. I got a few hours out of the prologue, and we need more good demos like this in the industry.
What Riftbreaker excels at is balance. There’s a lot of game crammed into its juicy, mechanical depths, and it does a splendid job making everything feel like it’s worth doing. There’s base building and resource gathering, which still has complexity of supply lines and logistics like Factorio and Dyson Sphere Program, only not quite as intense. This provides a healthy base for anyone to get started on, and the learning curve while big, isn’t as overwhelming. Combined with tower defence and dealing with ever-growing attacks of diverse alien enemies, managing the base with resources like electricity makes for a challenge as well as something I want to improve at. With many factors like weather events, toxic environments and boss monsters, there’s plenty to chew over.
There’s a ton of content in Riftbreaker as well. With its lengthy campaign mode which has good writing and story, as well as a highly customizable survival mode which can be tweaked in many ways, there’s a lot of game for its reasonable price tag of 30USD/£25. With full modding support in the works and more modes, there’s a healthy future for what’s already a fantastic game.
The only problem I’ve had is a few progression bugs in the campaign which have been fixed by patches, or else reloading a save. Besides that and the usual ‘Holy shit these attack waves can be hard’, I’ve have nothing but good things to say about The Riftbreaker. It looks great and plays well. It’s one of the most bang for your buck, customizable games on the market this year, and when a game combines so many types together and balances them, it’s done great.
3. Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure
Lacuna went beyond all expectations I had for it.
When I played this game back in May, I didn’t know what to make of it, but it’s stood the test of the year, and is one of the best indie games I’ve played in a long time. I got the chance to interview the developers Digitales Interactive, and you can read the interview here:
The interactive novel genre has always intrigued me, and Lacuna breaks the mould in many different ways. Most games in this category rely on point and click sequences with little world interaction, but Lacuna plays like an action game, being able to move the character around with competent keyboard/controller movements. More games should be like Lacuna, and I was pleased with how it veers away from its competitors. The result is a tight, highly refined experience that plays great.
After a short introduction when the planet is hit by a terrorist bombing, I was thrown into the game as Neil Conrad, CDI agent and absentee father. Awoken by the news of a murder, Neil is thrown into an investigation that soon challenges the life of those around it. Taking place in an intergalactic, cyberpunk noir-esque world, the graphics and art style leapt out to me from the beginning. It feels great exploring the little nooks and crannies, which is helped by a great soundtrack that really improves the game’s design.
There’s one nice thing about Lacuna. There’s no re-loading feature. There’s no manual save. There’s no going back and repeating conversations to pick another choice. What you pick stays with you, and the choices actually matter. This really helps sell the world design and it made me feel like a detective, going through my notes and working out what the right decision is. The story is powerful, tight and engrossing, and some of the choices stayed with me for a long time. There were moments I sat still, wondering if I made the right decision. I did get the good ending overall, but I didn’t know how it would go making it. That’s the kind of choices I want in my games.
It’s difficult to review something like Lacuna, because I don’t want to spoil anything. All I can say is to play it. The game isn’t long; I completed my playthrough in about 6 hours, but there are multiple choices and endings, so it has some replayability. Even so, the game is perfectly paced. We need more games like this in an industry that seems to favor vast game worlds and unlimited playtime. Sometimes, a tight, short narrative that respects the players time is the best thing to have, and Lacuna performs brilliantly on that regard. The only flaw I can think of is unskippable cutscenes, which can make a replay slightly frustrating, but otherwise, I’m a big fan of it. The strong writing and story and the beautiful soundtrack and visuals combines for a powerful experience everyone should play at least once.
2. Tainted Grail: Conquest
There are countless deck-builders on the gaming market nowadays, helped by the massive success of Slay the Spire. Some of my favorites have released in the past couple of years. Gordian Quest, Griftlands, Black Book and Monster Train all add their own twists to the genre and are great games in their own right, but Tainted Grail has proven capable of standing up to any of the best.
Originally designed as one release before being split into two games, this is the action orientated half, with the tactical open-world game Tainted Grail: Fall of Avalon scheduled for next year. Tainted Grail: Conquest originally came out on Early Access in 2020, leaving it on 27th May 2021. The result is an impressive game that matches its competitors on every level, and even surpasses them.
The story behind Tainted Grail: Conquest’s Story mode is simple enough. In a world broken by war and shadow, the hero must explore the shattered land of Albion, rescuing lost souls and battling the many dark creatures that now plague the realm. There are seven boss encounters to fight through as well as a ‘secret’ and ultimate boss, along with many quests and NPCS to interact with. While the story is relatively cliche, I found the writing and worldbuilding high quality, especially for a deck-builder, which is accompanied by great music. It all combines to form a pleasant experience, with a dark, gritty atmosphere. Wandering through the Wyrd mist is quite absorbing. Nearly every line of dialogue is voice acted, and I found no complaints with the voice acting. The lore is vivid, and really sells this cruel, corrupted world. The descriptions certainly aren’t for the faint hearted.
There are nine classes to choose from, all with different abilities and powers. They are roughly split into three categories: melee, ranged and summoning of minions to do the player’s bidding. Each class has a different Ultimate Power, which can be charged by performing certain tasks depending on the class. For example, the Blood Mage can overcharge their minions for extra damage, which combines with the Abomination summon to create a devastating nuke that can win fights in a heartbeat. The Ranger can use its Ultimate Power to launch volleys of arrows on his enemies. Like any roguelike, every unlock carries over into the new campaign run. Every time a run is completed, the enemies grow in difficulty.
Every class deck is unique with different card unlocks and abilities, and there’s quite the variety to be had. The Wyrd mist that plagues Albion also comes into effect in fights. While a Wyrdcandle burns, special cards will yield positive effects, while the Wyrd unchecked gives the player cards with negative effects. This, along with the many items to pick up, adds layers of strategy to an already deep gameplay experience. These Wyrd cards also come with a downside if not used, often for the next turn like lowered hit points or damage. Does the player choose to give the opponent an immediate advantage, or hurt themselves later? It just adds more choices to the game, and I like their variance.
The campaign can be quite long and there’s plenty of quests to do. The balancing of Tainted Grail can be seen as a potential weak spot for some, as there’s many overpowered strategies. Some players have been able to blast through the story mode in 10-15 hours. Others like myself are still pushing through the content. It’s hard to say exactly how long the story mode will be, but I’m about 20 hours into the story mode and halfway through my first completed run. Then again, I’m not that good at roguelites, so take that with a grain of salt!
In a recent patch, three new modes were added: Endless Misery and Endless Power which provide infinite battle encounters. They’re perfect either for people who have finished the story mode and want more content, or just if I want to experiment with different deck builds and strategies. Misery is more hardcore than Power, which plays out as a power fantasy romp. The final mode is Weekly Events, which provide frequent changes to Story Mode for more replayability.
Tainted Grail might just be the strongest deck-builder on the market right now. That doesn’t mean I think it’s perfect, of course. The optimization could be better, and I experienced a few bugs and crashes when playing it natively. Fortunately, it’s available on GeForce Now which helped a lot. Besides that, and the already mentioned balancing issues, I have only positive things to say about Tainted Grail: Conquest. It doesn’t quite match Slay the Spire’s deck complexity or Black Book’s emotional storytelling, but it has a nice balance.
Give it a try. You won’t regret it.
1. Suchart: Genius Artist Simulator
Yep. An Early Access title won 2021 GOTY for me!
It took me an incredibly long time to work out my favourite game of 2021. It was a tie between Tainted Grail and this, but I decided to go with Suchart for what it achieves for artists. It might be a surprise victor this year with other high quality releases I’ve shown, but I think it’s the right decision.
Yeah, it’s an Early Access title, though I believe it’s only that in name only. The game is complete and a beautiful tool. It’s more than a game. I’ve already reviewed it twice, so I won’t go into too much detail this time. You can check out the reviews here, it’ll tell you already how much I love it by how much I gush about it:
What this game accomplishes is incredible for the creative mind. Art is an expensive hobby to maintain, and quite messy. Suchart is a low-cost and realistic way to get into creating art. It doesn’t even require a very powerful machine with its excellent physics. I can get this thing running well on an integrated graphics chip, though naturally it’ll run better with a more powerful machine. I’m a terrible artist, but I don’t care. I love creating works in this game.
I would like to create sculptures or pottery. That’s pretty much the only thing I can suggest as an improvement. It recently received an update for graphic tablet support, which was the only other thing I wanted. There’s no such thing as a perfect game, yet Suchart is almost that for what it provides to any creative mind. That’s all I can say. Bravo, Voolgi. There are so few good artistic tools on the computer market, and already Suchart might be the best one going.
So, we come to the end of 2021 (pretty much!) This might not be the final article in my GOTY series. I still want to write one more, which will be some kind of roundup to games I haven’t covered, or would like to talk about. However, it has been a pretty good Top 10, and congrats to everything which made my series this year.