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I’m back again! We are getting close to revealing my Top 5 favourite games of 2021, and it has been an incredible challenge. However, I would like to recommend some more games. These are titles that might have flown under the radar, performed less than expected or just plain flawed games in their own right, but all of these I have a soft spot for.

No game is perfect. In fact, several of these games are chock-full of issues that hold them back from something greater. However, that doesn’t stop them from being entertaining or enjoyable. Some of these are games that might have made the Top 10 in another timeline, if I had more time to play them.

Previous articles from this year’s GOTY series can be found here:

Biomutant

Let’s kick off with a game which had quite a bit of hype.

This was ambitious to the bone, and I still can’t quite believe only nineteen people made this game. Biomutant is a weird game. Weird in execution, weird by design and weird by choice. It’s a fascinating project by such a small team. While it stumbles in many areas, I found it fascinating. I struggled where to put Biomutant. It has enough issues to join the more negative article that’s coming, but I found enough enjoyment and positives to stick it in the Hidden Gem category.

It launched in May to some…divisive opinions, not helped by a very ‘wishful thinking’ price tag of £55/60USD for the base game. One will look at 60$ and think: this is a AAA title. For Biomutant, it was a big risk. It certainly doesn’t feel like it deserved that price, and it’s painful to admit that. Biomutant is a monster mash of strange archetypes and an odd open world, coupled with strange design choices which are just baffling. Small dev team it is, we cannot give everything a free pass just because it’s a small studio. I wish we could.

For one, there’s little voice acting besides a peppy narrator that talks about everything in the game like something out of Fable, translating the gibberish from the characters. It’s…jarring and could have been done better. The story isn’t anything to write home about and the writing is only mediocre at best. The quest design of Biomutant is probably the game’s biggest weakness, focusing almost entirely on fetch quests and collectathons. It’s nothing different to many open world games, but Biomutant rarely strays from this formula and it gets repetitive quickly. This culimates in the poor Tribe War mechanic which got so frustrating I was happy to be given the option to skip it halfway through. With annoying boss battles, odd things in combat like clipping through enemies, Biomutant is a mixed bag.

However, Biomutant does well in a few things. The game is gorgeous to behold and explore, and despite the messy combat, it’s pretty fun to customize and mutate your character and weapons. Exploration is something Biomutant does well with all sorts of toys to experiment with, which all benefits the games huge emphasis on scrap and loot. This is combined with an ‘empty’ but suprisingly compelling world design. It’s difficult to do this well, but I found Biomutant did well with the lore and worldbuilding, and despite poor writing the characters were memorable.

Biomutant is a really strange experience. It has a tough beginning with some difficult mechanics to stomach, but I found it oddly enjoyable to play. Sure, it lacks focus and it’s a bit bloated, but if you can pick up Biomutant for around 35-40USD, I’d say go for it. It’s a big game with a lot to do, and you get to play as a ninja raccoon. Go in with tempered expectations, and I think it’s a good time if you’re prepared with its problems. I’d rather play Biomutant than Assassins Creed 5768 with Sugar, at any rate.

I just hope the game gets more updates. The last few months have been fairly quiet.

Empire of Ember

This might be one of my favourite sleeper titles of the year. It’s not quite there yet, but what I’ve played fascinates me, and I can’t wait to see how it develops through into 2022. Seriously, give it a try.

I first discovered Empire of Ember back in April. While I picked it up at launch, I didn’t get round to playing it until September. Made by a single man team in Poleaxe Games, this is one seriously ambitious project. The best way to describe it is imagine a twisted offspring of Mount and Blade, Heroes of Might and Magic and Legend of Grimrock. Fortunately, the child is more like Myrcella than a Joffrey, so there’s no disaster here! It may be early days for this title, but there is a potential winner brewing in this bubbling stew of different games. The last time I was reminded of something similar was Kenshi. That game took time to become the behemoth it is now. Maybe in the future, Empire of Ember can do the same.

While the game has its issues, I was quite surprised to find it backs up the promises it makes. Mount and Blade Bannerlord has a much bigger budget and team size than Poleaxe games, and on some levels Empire of Ember eclipses that. My disdain of Bannerlord is no secret if you know me. It’s a fun game but…yeah. That’s for another time.

In Empire of Ember, you play as a sorcerer’s apprentice, and the voice acting while not professional is pretty solid off the bat. Finishing off a tutorial, I emerged from the dungeon to find a city destroyed by a horde of goblins. With my tutor suffering from ‘sword through bowels syndrome’, it’s my job to restore the city, recruit an army and find out what happened to my tutor. The game packs quite a lot of things into it. There’s unrestricted town building, army recruitment and training, procedurally generated dungeons and siege warfare with fully destructible terrains. The magic has a lot of cool stuff too, and I feel Dark Messiah vibes with the way combat is done. With all sorts of ways to abuse the terrain to your advantage, there’s a lot to like here.

With every ambitious early development title however comes caveats, and Empire of Ember has those. I found the combat quite difficult at first, and it’s very easy to get yourself killed. This was made tricky because of the combat animations, which feel rather clunky. It’s manageable, just takes a while to get used to. There are also quite a few bugs which is something to be expected from something so ambitious. After a rough opening launch, the game has seen several patches with improved tutorials, bug fixes and added content. Right now I’d say it’s in a decent position, though there’s still much to be improved.

I’m growing rather fond of Empire of Ember. You can pick it up on Steam for $25/£19.99/22 EUR, which I believe to be a fair price tag for what you get. There aren’t many games like this on the market. In time, this could become a real sleeper hit, and it’s well deserving of my ‘Hidden Gem’ status.

Five Nations

The RTS genre has been relatively stale for years.

It’s one of the most difficult game types to create in my opinion, which is probably a reason why we haven’t seen too many in recent years. Age of Empires IV is the only AAA one of note in the last five or six years, and it’s come with some controversy despite its relatively good reception. We need more AAA titles in this category, so I hope that it continues to succeed. It’s a game I want to go to, anyway.

That hasn’t stopped certain indie studios trying, however. One of these is Five Nations, a cool little title I feel quite drawn to.

Any RTS is hard to pull off. I’ve had experience of that myself in the industry. When it’s made by such a small dev team, that takes talent and more than a little daring. I interviewed the developers Silverforge here:

The result is a pretty damn enjoyable RTS set in space. If you’re interested, there’s a pretty chunky demo available to try out. It contains the first 8 missions of the massive 56 mission long campaign, several skirmish maps and even part of its map editor. With the exception of Suchart!’s creative demo, it’s one of the best demos I’ve played this year, and it made me want to jump into the game proper. The devs very nicely gave me a key for the game, and I’ve been enjoying it a lot ever since.

It feels like the golden years of 2000 RTS, with simple mechanics and visual design. It gets the job done, with several different factions and diverse units/mechanics which make each playthrough a different one. It’s difficult with the enemy AI’s constant attacks, but it never got overly frustrating for me to play. The campaign has some decent writing and voice acting, which isn’t the most amazing I’ve ever seen, but it does a good job telling the story they want to tell. There’s solid gameplay in the many skirmish modes, and the multiplayer, while rudimentary so far, feels like it could be a good laugh. I’d need to play more games, and it’s certainly something I’m not great at yet.

It’s only 20$. Five Nations is one of those rare examples where I feel they could get away with charging a little more for how much they’re offering. It’s not the best game out there of course, and I’d like to see a less archaic UI as their current interface is lacking in some areas, but it’s worth the cost of a takeaway. With a lot of content and a rare insight in the indie RTS scene, there’s a lot to like with Five Nations, and I’m excited to return to it in the near future.

Old World

I wasn’t greatly keen on Humankind.

Yeah, it had a lot of hype going into it as a big competitor for the Civ series. Goodness knows we could use more of those. I just wasn’t a huge fan of the game. I enjoyed bits of it, but something didn’t click for me. On the plus side, it’s available through the excellent Xbox Game Pass, so that’s always nice for those already subscribed and not want to fork out $40 a game.

Old World hasn’t had much time in the limelight, probably because it launched as a timed Epic Store exclusive. Yeah, that still is a loaded thing for many people. I guess I understand the annoyance, even if I find the whole controversy a bit petty. Yeah, I don’t like exclusivity as much as anyone. Guess it doesn’t irk me as much as it does others. Either way, Old World has fallen under the radar for many, and that’s a shame. I like this game more than I did Humankind. I’m not too sure why. It’s a solid 4X game though.

It’s a strange mix of Civ and Crusader Kings in that the characters get story choices as the years roll by. In my first (and only campaign) to date, I played as Macedon where my boy Phillip and Alexander got the works: how to educate them, how I deal with my rivals, and the world events keep things relatively dynamic. Events fly in thick and fast, but never did it get annoying. While it balances the Civ and Crusader King elements well, it never went into such insane depth of both games, which I enjoyed. Sometimes the biggest problem with these games is learning how to play them in the first place, and while Old World is hard to learn, the curve isn’t too punishing. I found myself caring about the characters. All the advisers have their own distinct personalities, giving it a bit more spark than ordinary 4X titles which can feel like a basic numbers game at times.

In a way, I feel guilty for not placing Old World higher on my list this year. Unfortunately, I’ve played better games in 2021 and the truth is I haven’t played enough of it yet to really get a feel for the game. However, it’s impressed me. The tutorials are intuitive, it has solid mod support and there’s a lot of depth. It is buggier than I would like, as the performance isn’t great for a game with weaker graphics than competing games. Perhaps it could do with some more optimization patches? Either way, I can recommend Old World. It’s due to release on Steam in 2022, so perhaps give it a go then? It’s a great competitor to Humankind, I can say that.

Alekon

I’m amazed Alekon did not sell well. It’s a wonderful game and it’s the PC take on Pokemon Snap. In many ways, I feel it’s better than Pokemon Snap.

I first learned about this release from the Wholesome Direct during June, and the E3. After some nice talk with the devs (who made one hell of a debut!), I walked away from Alekon deeply impressed. I can’t believe it was made by just three people.

I was quite fond of the Pokemon Snap remake. It made my honorable mentions list, after all. Fans of that franchise should give Alekon a look. It achieves a lot for its vision, taking the best elements from Pokemon Snap and adding their own twists. There’s no voice acting, but the game hardly needs it. I was a little skeptical before I dove in, but it’s achieved all it promised, and goes beyond it. There’s a diverse range of characters, each with their own voice, with a beautiful graphics set. There’s the on-rails photography mechanic we know from Pokemon Snap, but Alekon bucks this trend by allowing off-road exploration of the different biomes. Free-roam is something which should have been in Snap, and I love that Alekon allows this upon completing a course. With plenty of little side quests and minigames that are enjoyable to explore, it’s quite the special experience. What I wasn’t too keen about with the remake was how little it did to innovate itself from the original, which was a 1999 game! Alekon is something refreshing, exciting and different. All the reason why I’m sad the game hasn’t sold well. Some of the best indie gems struggle to break out, a painful reminder of how difficult it is to succeed in this industry.

Give Alekon a chance. That’s all I ask.

That’s all for today! I was considering making this a duel article with some of the games that disappointed me most, but I want to try and make the end of this horrific year at least somewhat positive. Next week, we’ll talk about my Top 5 games of 2021.

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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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