Updated: Mar 14, 2021
2020 was a long, rough year and with 2021 looking to be more of the same, what a great time to bunker down with some video games.
Some games have flown under the collective radar that you may have missed the first time. Here are five to check out before the games slated for 2021 are released.
1. Hades (Supergiant Games, 2020)
(c) Supergiant Games. Video courtesy of Gamespot Trailers via Youtube.
First cab off the rank and we’ve got my favourite indie developer – Supergiant Games. They treat writing as an integral part of the video game and not just a thread used to connect scripted action set pieces where the only dialogue is from the protagonist’s gun and their gun only knows one very loud word.
Supergiant’s previous game Pyre (released in 2017) was an intensely emotional visual novel basketball game so of course, their latest game Hades is a roguelike hack and slash RPG based on Greek mythology. Its gameplay may not be anything spectacular and a bit of a slog, but the story is every part as touching and resonant as video game writing can get.
The roguelike gameplay, multiple replays through the game, and gradually upgrading your skills lends the story elements a two-layered approach, where the surface story is about Hades, prince of the underworld pulling a reverse Orpheus and escaping hell.
The story can start and end there if that’s as far as you want to delve into it, but if you look closer the second layer begins to reveal itself.
The starting area takes on a surreal narrative the more times you replay it, as you pass the bosses you’ll vanquish later on, the sense of urgency builds as you experience the same events over and over like you’re the Greek Phil Connors.
Even if you don’t love roguelike RPG’s be sure to check it out.
2. FTL: Faster Than Light (Subset Games, 2012)
(c) Subset Games. Video courtesy of Gamespot Trailers via Youtube.
From hack and slash roguelikes to real-time strategy roguelikes, we’ve got Subset Games’ sci-fi game following the player as they pilot a lone ship belonging to a generic space federation as they jump from galaxy to galaxy to give their main force advance warning of an impending attack from a generic rebel fleet.
This warning is rendered redundant when the rebels show up right behind you and you must dig your heels in, face your pursuer, and get pulverised by the rebel flagship because the random number generator (RNG) decided not to cough up the one specific weapon that you needed.
Yes, in this game the RNG is judge, jury, and executioner as you scavenge for scrap, upgrading your weapons only to have an entire four-hour run tanked by your crew members suffocating to death because the wrong door was left open.
Of course, if anything like that did happen, the minimalist design the game adopts leaves us with only text descriptions to show the crew being devoured by giant alien spiders.
The game’s design might have people writing it off as a low budget game, but this allows the game to take a more introspective angle. Throughout the game you make small choices as you travel the galaxy. When enemy ships surrender you could acknowledge that or blow them to bits because you only need a little more scrap for the next shield upgrade.
An intriguing and enjoyable game, even if the heavy reliance on the RNG can leave you feeling cheated after an unlucky run.
3. Driver San Francisco (Ubisoft, 2011)
(c) Ubisoft. Video courtesy of Ubisoft via Youtube.
Even though I was a 2000’s kid, I was pretty much brought up watching shows from the seventies and eighties. We’re talking The Transformers, SWAT, T J Hooker, Jake and The Fatman, and mostly Starsky and Hutch. Driver San Francisco is cast from a similar daytime cop tv show mould – series protagonist John Tanner is a maverick cop that bends the rules but gets the job done. He’s got a sassy partner, a love of 70’s muscle cars, and a massive death wish.
The goofy daytime cop show vibe the game presents meshes nicely with the game’s mechanics. Seatbelts are magic lifesaving devices and pedestrians clear the area faster than a classroom on black bean Friday. This keeps the game’s tone light without it coming off as completely psychotic.
The game’s unique selling point of being able to leap into any car at will is the right kind of gimmick in that it adds to a worn-out concept.
Other than that, you just drive around, jumping off ramp trucks, collecting collectables - standard Ubisoft open-world game direction. The body-swapping mechanic lends itself to multiple opportunities to cause mayhem. From choosing civilians to sacrifice to the god of head-on collisions or remotely controlling a car from the car behind it.
This game has an almost seamless sense of flow. You can be in a cutscene, slide into gameplay, crash head-on into a wall or a traffic barrier and with only two simple button presses you’re back on the road, leaving whoever you were controlling stuck taking public transport for the next few days.
It’s a fun romp and you can play split-screen with mates on the couch. What more can you want?
4. Disco Elysium (ZA/UM, 2019)
c) ZA/UM. Video courtesy of Disco Elysium via Youtube.
If you’re a fan of the LucasArts brand of adventure games from the 90s then this next game is right up your alley.
The animation and presentation of the game uses a classic isometric view mixed with the LucasArts 90’s style of point and click adventure games like your Monkey Islands or Day of The Tentacles.
Like any good story, you start drunk in a hotel room. No sooner have you begun than you’re rolling skill checks to look at yourself in the mirror and get your tie down from the ceiling fan. These skill checks aren’t your usual ones either, it’s all conceptualisation and rhetoric. These skill checks are exactly that, reminiscent of rolling for initiative in D&D, complete with rolling dice and the percentage chance of your succeeding or failing.
The writing is where the real meat of this game is. Every single interaction I’ve had in this game, I’ve always wanted to keep talking with random strangers on the street just to experience more of the delicious writing the game serves up. The gameplay’s the standard point and click adventure affair – point, click, look up a wiki to figure out what inane thread of logic you’re supposed to tug on to continue playing the game.
What really made me fall in love with this game is the visual design. It drips with character and charm – from the backgrounds to the character designs, even the loading screens and pause menus draw you into the world ZA/UM has created. The soundtrack’s minimal but it suits the game well enough by melding into the background and not distracting from the game.
A good detective noir mystery with great writing and visual design.
5. Spec Ops: The Line (2K Games, 2012)
c) 2K Games. Video courtesy of 2K Games via Youtube.
For our final entry today, it’s my favourite video game story of all time. A cross between Call of Duty and The Heart of Darkness, we’ve got the third-person shooter, Spec Ops: The Line.
Now if you’ve been following my blog posts for a while, you’ll know that I absolutely adore this game (or more accurately, this game’s story).
You are Captain Martin Walker, head of an elite Delta Force squad tasked with a recon mission in a ruined Dubai after massive sandstorms have wiped out much of the city. Walker and his team are tasked with finding Colonel John Konrad, leader of the 33rd Infantry battalion of the United States army – dubbed the damned 33rd – after Konrad defied orders to abandon the city and volunteered the battalion to assist with the relief efforts.
After a declaration of martial law and an attempted coup, Konrad sends a signal into the storm wall requesting assistance. Before long, both Walker and the player realise that there is something more happening in Dubai, with the CIA and the remainder of the damned 33rd battling it out for control of the city, while Walker is caught in the crossfire.
As Walker and his men march onwards, their sanity and emotional state crumble in the face of horrific atrocities. At this point, the player is only along for the ride, the last vestige of self-awareness in an increasingly damaged mind.
Apart from the story, the gameplay isn’t much to write home about. It’s your standard pop and stop shooting gallery that most third-person shooters were back in that period. The game’s talk of being a tactical shooter vanishes as soon as you enter combat with your options being either you shoot the enemy or get your AI helpers to shoot them.
Crank the difficulty down to easy for this one and just enjoy the rollercoaster of emotions this game provides.
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