This might be a long read. Best to grab some snacks and coffee before reading this!
Welcome to the first of my annual video game Who’s Who for 2020! To read up on it, check out my intro here:
Early Access has seen a slew of really cool stuff this year. I know there’s a lot of stigma attached to games that release in an early state and ask for money in return for playing it early, but I enjoy exploring them. Indie and AA studios are where the innovation exists, so I’m happen to explore and have a deep look inside them. 2020 has seen some excellent games like this, and I’m happy to take the time to show off some of my favorites.
Remember, only three max will make my Top 10 overall this year, and it was difficult enough picking these, there’s been a lot more than that. I’ve had to count out many cool early access games just because I haven’t had time to play them enough yet. You might see some of those in a future article, however.
Let’s kick things off with one of the best deckbuilders of 2020, and there’s been quite a few of them. I’m not going to pretend how much I enjoy this game, so I’ll try to keep it as concise as possible.
Deck-building games have been growing in popularity since the launch of Slay the Spire (Which came out of early access in 2020, but you won’t be seeing it this year. Why? Because I haven’t played enough of it).
Monster Train’s systems are easy enough. You have to defend your train from a growing onslaught of enemies, and protect your heart (called the Pyre). If it gets destroyed, you lose. Simple, but makes for an addictive gameplay loop. 8 levels, with increasingly difficult enemies to fight.
There are five different decks in the base, with a major deck and a minor as backup. This makes for some interesting different strategies, and it’s something I’ve really enjoyed playing with. Each deck has a different core plan around it. For example, the Awoken are based around damaging your enemies through them hitting your monsters while using spells for damage, while the Morsels are eaten to buff your stronger monsters. Be careful, because different enemies have different plans of their own. For example, the Morsel deck is powered by sacrificing your army to strengthen your bigger guys. Be a shame if one level had monsters that gained strength for every death?
Just like your opponents, you get boss monsters of your own, and every few levels you’ll get to upgrade them. Transform your champion into something stronger, and you get the chance to strengthen your monsters as well, giving them more HP, more attack damage or give them more abilities. All you need to do is give up gold. There are special challenges too, where you can accept a difficulty modifier for a greater prize. Artifacts also add replayability, with boons that help you out along the way.
Because of this, there is a ton of strategy involved, and it’s really been addictive. I haven’t played 60 hours plus in this game for no reason. Monster Train was not long in Early Access this year, relying on a lightning fast development and launching in 1.0 earlier this year. That’s good, because even at launch, the game was in a beautiful state, with a ton of content and very few technical issues. This game is charming, polished, highly re-playable, and above all, extremely well made. Roguelikes need good gameplay, and Monster Train does so well in these regards.
You may be wondering: If this game came out in 1.0, why is it in the Early Access section? I’m just as baffled as you are. My answer is this: I’ve seen the development from beginning to end, and while it’s out of early access now, it’s far from done, with more content plotted. Because Monster Train launched in 2020 and not an early access title from previous years, it felt right putting it in this section.
There’s even mod support now. It’s a slow start, but I know there will be even more content from modders soon. Monster Train is brilliant, and deserves to be at the top of the pack.
You…You can probably guess already how this will fare. Well, sit back, because there are other games to talk about!
One biggest problem I have with video games is actually completing some. It’s something that’s become a running joke with some members of my gaming community. I’m trying, I promise! Well, Ruinarch is a game I can technically add to the list of games completed for this year, and it’s a pretty good one.
Ruinarch is a fascinating little game that launched in 2020 in Early Access. A simulation sandbox game where you create obstacles and cause conflicts in procedurally generated fantasy worlds. I like to refer to it as Reverse Rimworld: while that game focuses on you as a group of survivors trying to escape a planet while an evil, piece of shit enemy director tries to fuck with you as much as possible, in Ruinarch, you are that piece of shit director.
And it’s got quite a lot of things you can do. It has a little bit of the now long-dead god game sim inside it (A travesty because the god gaming genre was amazing), so you can approach wiping out villages in different ways. You can cast powerful spells like fire, lightning and blizzards to rain hell upon them, if you like the direct approach. You have powerful demons you can summon, which helps the “Operation Fuckup Village” plan. Be careful of course, because the villagers don’t like evil gods by principle.
Or you can go the more subtle approach. Ruinarch has quite a nice system where the villagers have different relationships and personalities, and infecting them with say…darker thoughts is one way to ruin them too. Turn a wife against her husband by making her a vampire, or a son against his father by turning him into a psychopath who only kills other men. There’s a lot to play with, and there’s enough content to keep you interested.
The game is in early access and in a fairly enjoyable state, if a little buggy at times. I completed all six base scenarios (which have some variation on gameplay and need different tactics to complete them) in about 12 hours, but there’s a good amount of replayability with all the options. So far, I recommend it if you want a unique little game to let off steam, and it has a nice roadmap with more content and features to come. It just needs a bit more polish, but it’s nearly there.
You notice how in RPGs, you always seem to go to taverns? You drink beer, occasionally get into fights with people, piss off the innkeeper, occasionally solicit tavern girls and pick up quests? What if you were the innkeeper? There’s been a serious shortage of these kinds of games, and often they struggle with their design. Crossroads Inn is one of the few examples I can think of, a game that’s had a rocky development to say the least. It’s still interesting, and I’m looking forward to playing that more, but it’s a genre I wish we had more games of.
That’s why I was so interested in Traveller’s Rest. Released in August of this year, Traveller’s Rest is a charming game that reminds me a little of Stardew Valley in its art style and design. You get your tavern from humble beginnings and you need to build up from scratch, making your tavern as comfortable as possible, sell drink and food (which you make yourself) to your guests and rake in a profit. It’s pretty quaint, and surprisingly well polished for a game from a single developer.
There’s a lot of charm in this game as well, with lots of content. You unlock more and more tools and equipment the higher your reputation goes, such as a farm where you can plant crops, and upstairs rooms where you can host guests. The game has a lot of micromanagement especially early game, and you may find yourself overwhelmed at the beginning. This does get easier when you unlock bar staff, who will take care of most of the legwork allowing you to focus on brewing and crafting. With the amount of customization you get to do with your food and drink, there’s an awful lot of experimentation.
Your customers are fickle, and you’ll need to work hard to impress them. Make sure your tavern is clean, as if your little guy don’t like their experience, they will give you a negative feedback, which reduces your reputation score. It’s best not to expand too quickly, a few tables to begin with to seat guests, and order in more stuff as things progress. You get an extensive XP and Tech tree as upgrades which all contribute to your experience, adding more things you can craft or make, improving your abilities as an innkeeper and all sorts.
While this game is addictive, charming and a lot of fun so far, I do have some recommendations. The menu/UI systems are a little clunky, and you’ll need to micro them about by clicking through menus constantly to get where you want to be. That could be improved. Furthermore, NPC interaction leaves a little to be desired, with limited options so far. You do get to unlock more features, but I would like to see an overhaul of their dialog system just to add a little more life.
Despite the few flaws so far, this is a well crafted sim, and one of the strongest in its genre. We’re only a few months into its development, and I’m really excited to see how it progresses. One to look out for, for sure!
Remember Kingdom Come: Deliverance? It was my GOTY in 2018: a beautiful, ambitious and well crafted medieval RPG, with some caveats in performance and an interesting combat system. What if you made it a crafting/survival simulator? Welcome to Medieval Dynasty.
Made by the same guys who made Farmers Dynasty, I think a lot of people were skeptical this could pull it off. Farmer’s Dynasty isn’t bad by any means, but a hardcore survival/crafting Medieval RPG is hard to do well, and many believed that these guys, while ambitious and capable, couldn’t pull it off.
I was one of those believers, but the game looked fascinating as a premise, so I was happy to try it out. While Medieval Dynasty is among the least played on my list at this current time, I’m amazed by how well they’ve pulled it off. The game is gorgeous to start off, with some of the best lighting and forests I’ve seen in a AAA title, let alone a small indie studio. While it’s ‘survival crafting’, a phrase many gamers now roll their eyes at, this is done rather well. There’s a nice questline to starters, so you’re not blundering about like a gorilla who has finally discovered he can mate for the first time, which gives you a lot of space to get used to the mechanics. You can craft your own village from scratch, and even start your own family.
Skeptical of another Early Access title in limbo? Don’t be. The developers are very helpful in dealing with problems, communicative, and committed to seeing this game through. I’ve seen more updates in a week than most Early Access titles get in a month. Medieval Dynasty is in one polished state, and while there are a few bugs and glitches, and I wish the game had voice acting, it’s impressive how complete it feels already.
Sands of Salzaar
Released early this year (I’m talking the crack of 2020, 3rd of January. It feels like years!), Sands of Salzaar looked interesting from the beginning, but it had one major flaw: no English localization. This was…a bit of a problem. Fortunately, things improved in September when the devs made big improvements to the game, including complete English translation. This was what I was looking for, and I leapt right onto the game. Salzaar is a fascinating game, with a lot of good things to say about it.
The best way to describe Sands of Salzaar would be a twisted smoothie between Kenshi, Banner Saga and Battle Brothers. Set in a vast desert landscape, there’s some really call ideas in this. You travel on the large open world map and explore locations, recruit soldiers and upgrade them, carry out missions and side quests and eventually be able to control your own cities. There’s resources and food to collect to feed your growing army, and loads of different items to power up your character heroes. Unlike games like Kenshi, there are dedicated questlines in this game, and the writing is surprisingly good, even if the dialogue at times is a bit odd. That’s probably down to the English translation, which while is easy to understand, isn’t a perfect fit, so some stuff may be a little strange.
The soundtrack is beautiful, and it’s quite a delight to explore the overworld while listening to the music. Combat takes place in a different map where it’s real-time combat. You control your hero while your army battles alongside you, and you take on all manners of enemies. There are also siege scenarios where you have to take control of the buildings in mind. This could do with a lot more balance, and might be the weakest part of the game, but there are frequent patches and I’m sure it’ll improve in time. The combat, while clunky, is easy to get into and quite refreshing.
Sands of Salzaar is a true hidden gem. It’s not quite where it needs to be yet, but it’s a chunky game with a great open world, nice quests with surprisingly good writing, and a ton of replayability with its strong Legacy system. Expect me to talk about this game more in the future, because it’s an ambitious game oozing brilliance under the surface.
It’s rare that a video game grabs me within the opening ten minutes, but that’s what Teardown has done for me.
Made by a small, independent studio known as Tuxedo Labs based in Sweden, Teardown does what gaming is set out to do in brilliant style: mad, endless fun. Early Access has seen a slew of really cool stuff this year. I know there’s a lot of stigma attached to games that release in an early state and ask for money in return for playing it early, but I enjoy exploring them. Indie studios are where the innovation exists, so I’m happen to explore and have a deep look inside them. 2020 has seen some excellent games in this regard, and Teardown is one of the best launches from a small studio I’ve seen in recent years.
It’s wonderful to see this. We’ve seen incredible surges in some games (Among Us), while others like Fall Guys and Phasmophobia have also seen a lot of coverage. Teardown is looking like another huge hit with the consumers, and it’s wonderful to see. You can probably guess this will be a rather glowing review, but I’ll try and point out the game’s flaws as well.
So, what is Teardown? Here’s the gist of it, according to the Steam page:
“Prepare the perfect heist in this simulated and fully destructible voxel world. Tear down walls with vehicles or explosives to create shortcuts. Stack objects to reach higher. Use the environment to your advantage in the most creative way you can think of.”
The story is still in development, and because this game is in early access, it may be a while before we see the full thing, but the basis is you’re a struggling demolition company in hard times. Pressured by this, you end up taking increasingly dodgy contracts from some messed up people eager to cause as much chaos as possible, often putting you in the middle. There’s 20 missions at launch in four different locations, featuring stuff like picking up valuables, stealing stuff and plain old destruction. There’s alarms to work around, and a time limit to get through them. This ends up with a lot of work around the map, as you explore tricks and ways to nab your targets in the time limit. This is both stressful and fun, because the game sandbox gives you so many options.
You get to destroy everything with the right tool in a brilliantly designed voxel world. I don’t think I’ve seen a system like this in a while that shows off physics in a way this game does, and it does it in an addictive way. Blow up or destroy things to form bridges, parkour across buildings, smash windows to jump in from odd angles, and so much more. You get ten tools to use, from smashy hammers, to pipe bombs, to blowtorches and guns. You unlock these by completing objectives, which is a nice incentive to keep doing them. Primary and secondary objectives contribute, and the more you do, the more you’ll increase in rank. Jumping ranks means unlocking more weapons.
Fire also spreads. Use explosives inside a place with flammable material, and the fire will take hold, resulting in awesome results. It looks amazing, though it will tank your framerate after a while. There’s also a ton of vehicles to drive, with their own physics and some rather nice driving controls. Diggerland was a nice place in the UK I used to go to as a kid to drive diggers; always an awesome experience. Teardown reminds me of that, only you get to destroy stuff as well.
The mission design is very simple but it’s always fun. Usually you have alarms that break, and you need to grab everything on the map and flee. With only 60 seconds to pull off these type of missions, this makes for some really tense and exciting moments in which you need to prepare everything beforehand. I know some people dislike this mechanic and they want to be able to destroy things without time constraints, but there’s a sandbox mode for every map for that reason. The gameplay loop is simple, but highly effective in keeping attention. I’d say there’s about 20-30 hours of content in this current version, but it’s the perfect game to let off steam too. With mod support coming and more missions in the future, its going to be one chunky game for it’s very reasonable price tag.
Visuals are rather pretty. Everything can be destroyed in some form, and the game gets rather gorgeous in spite of its simplistic design. These examples should show off some of them:
Performance is weird to discuss, because while I’ve had a few issues with framerate, I completely understand why. Every single piece of this world has its own physics, so in some ways, it’s quite impressive how well it runs. You’ll still need a beefy computer to get this running perfect, and I discourage smashing large objects into buildings too much. It doesn’t matter how powerful your system is, that kind of destruction all at once will be taxing on your computer. Same goes for any large-scale fires, so play around with the options. Speaking of, while there are a decent amount of things to change options wise, I would like to see more.
If there is a flaw I can find, it’s that while the physics is pretty well implemented, you’ll see some odd things were entire houses are held up by only a few pieces of metal/concrete. If they can fix this, it’ll go a long way, as right now it feels a bit like Red Faction: Guerrilla in that regard.
Teardown can be picked up right now on Steam for $20/20 Euros/£18.49, a rather generous price tag given the amount of content, the polish and the potential to come. I’ll say this now, I’ve rarely been as impressed by an opening in a while, and I feel Teardown has that rare grasp few games possess. I expect this to be a big name over the next 6-9 months, and it might just be one of the strongest early access titles of this crazy year.
Urtuk: The Desolation
Because I don’t want to spend too long talking about games (We’re up to 3.4k words here, and my brain deeply desires coffee and snacks), I will make this the final Early Access title on the list, and it’s a strong one. Single developer games are really ramping up in quality, and this turn based tactics game is really strong. Made by a single guy, David Kaleta, Urtuk is really an interesting game with a ton of polish.
Set in a grim, low-fantasy open world, you command a small force of brave adventurers as you travel through this desolate, ruined realm, looking for a tunnel to advance through the world state. I have to talk about the combat, because I have rarely played such a strong, dynamic system. Heavily relying on terrain, the turn-based system is fluid, highly adaptable with a ton of depth. Your characters are diverse as well. Support your characters with a wide range of styles too, and upgrade them with mutators; dangerous abilities that reduce your health, but vastly increases your options. Attack from range with your crossbowman, snipe them with your assassin blades, be a high risk, high return berserker with a big axe, support them with your monk. Being able to swap out mutators at will gives you a ton to work with, and I mean it when I say this is one of the best tactic games out there.
Like I said before, the terrain gives you plenty of things to do. Shove your opponents into spikes to damage them, into oil pits to slow them down, or down spiked ravines to kill them instantly. Of course, your enemies can do the same to you as well, so be careful. You can also extract abilities from your enemies, who come from a wide range of classes like Scavengers, Beasts, Vampires and Werewolves, and use resources to steal them for yourself. This gives even more replayability. Upgrade your characters to gain more stats, and you gain money and life essence. If your characters are injured, heal them with medicine, which is limited. You can buy more, but this is a gritty world and it doesn’t come cheap. The world grows around you as well, with parties hunting down your mutated characters and they grow stronger alongside you.
Urtuk really is a passion project with some excellent build quality. There’s even a Conquest mode in beta set aside from the main campaign, with unlockable options and more planned. It’s also fairly cheap and runs on almost anything, with a great soundtrack.
Whew. That was quite the read. These are some of the strongest Early Access titles out there on the market, and they are all great in their own right. Which ones will make it into my Top 10? You’ll have to wait and see.
Join me next time, because I’ll be dropping Honorable Mentions!