Developer: Subset Games Publisher: Subset Games Platforms: PC, Switch
Chess is one of my favorite games growing up, and still is to this day. It’s also a big reason why I frequently fall in love with tactical, turn-based RPGs and strategy games.
Into the Breach is basically Chess but with time-traveling mechs battling Godzilla-sized insects in a pixelated art style. Every battle is a tiny square made up of grids, and you’re given all the information immediately, including enemy movement, turn order, and attack abilities.
Each turn is filled with agonizing yet wonderful decisions about saving the people versus minimizing the damage to your mechs. Every round is a critical choreography of damage as I have to carefully anticipate which squares will be hit, and how best to eliminate or move enemies around. Nothing is more satisfying than moving an enemy so it attacks its own allies.
Each campaign cleverly lets you choose the length by letting me decide when I want to tackle the final assault, and the action scales accordingly. Individual missions and tasks vary from saving a train to avoiding acid baths, while much of the replayability comes from unlocking and using new mech teams with fun themes and synergy.
Out of all the games on this list Into the Breach is the one I plan on returning to the most. Its delicate tactical balance splashed with just the right amount of RPG elements make it more than a worthy follow-up to Subset Games’ previous hit, FTL.
I have fond memories playing Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis back in the early 2000s. It was basically a dino-themed Sim Theme Park but with excellent use of the official license and a truly impressive dinosaur AI. Fast-forward a decade and a half later and we finally get the spiritual successor we deserve.
Frontier Developments streamlined much of their also excellent Planet Coaster to make a more console-friendly theme park game, but thankfully they kept the intricate dinosaur AI that makes managing, caring for, and dealing with dinosaurs so rewarding and fascinating.
The campaign is broken up into multiple islands, each with their own specific challenges and objectives, like extremely limited building spaces, or tropical storms that knock out your power grid and soon cause running and screaming. DNA progress and unlocked research carry over between islands, letting you hop back and forth and essentially play multiple games at once.
Figuring out how the most efficient and effective ways to manage the dinosaurs is a satisfying puzzle, as each species has specific requirements towards foliage, social herds, and enclosure size. It’s even a viable strategy to feed herbivores to carnivores and let dinos duke it out, increasing their star rating and boosting sales, turning everyone into the callous, nature-strangling overlords that Dr. Ian Malcom warned us about.
I admit that 2016’s Planet Coaster is ostensibly a better, and more robust theme park game, but I’m a huge sucker for dinosaurs and Jurassic World Evolution is the closest thing to a Jurassic Park dream game I’ve been waiting over a decade for.
Developer: 11 bit Studios Publisher: 11 bit Studios Platforms: PC
I was a bit late to the party with This War of Mine, a unique sim-survival game that played out like a strategic board game with a harrowing real-world theme about the horrors of war upon civilians. This War of Mine put 11 bit Studios on my personal radar, and I was very much looking forward to Frostpunk when it released earlier this year.
Frostpunk did not disappoint. Like This War of Mine it takes some very heavy survival themes and treats them with the cold-hearted seriousness that befits surviving during an apocalypse.
Your haggard survivors have found a geothermic reactor and established a city amid a world blanketed in sub-freezing temperatures.
The real-time strategy game forces you to manage precious resources like coal, wood, and food, but also regulate the happiness and morale of your people. Stuffing food with sawdust will help ration meek food stores but your people won’t be happy. A 24-hour shift could be just enough to make it through the night, but injury and exhaustion will spread like a plague.
Little story events force you to make tough decisions, like giving leniency to a mother stealing food for her children. Ultimately you’ll need to choose either a zealous or totalitarian path to unlock new laws and edicts and keep everyone in line, a sobering look at how humanity survives extreme conditions.
Thanks to its incredibly immersive atmosphere, haunting string soundtrack and compelling writing. Frostpunk is more than just a thematic city builder. It’s one of the best games of the year.
Developer: Game Freak Publisher: The Pokémon Company, Nintendo Platforms: Switch
I love my mainline Pokémon games but I typically skip the spin-offs. While I do casually enjoy mobile AR game Pokémon GO, I was fully prepared to roll my eyes at what looked like a dumbed down, Pokémon GO-ified RPG.
I was happy to be very wrong – Pokémon Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! are charming and delightful recreations of the original Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow games. Adventuring through a fully 3D Kanto is a delicious nostalgia fest but it’s the little improvements that really kept me hooked, like being able to swap your party out on field, drop-in co-op, and not having to teach the critical Hidden Machine skills just to get around.
Random battles have been completely replaced with Pokémon GO‘s pokéball throwing minigame, and it’s honestly a really great change of pace. Collecting Pokémon becomes quick and rewarding rather than a slog, and we finally get to actually see Pokémon out in the field. I can be far more proactive and engaged in Pokémon hunting – with the benefit of also making the world of Kanto really come to life.
It’s a testament to how well designed that original 20 year old game is that this modern remake doesn’t have to change a whole lot to get me sucked in all over again. Yet all the changes and improvements are very welcome. I would love to see Let’s Go editions of each Pokémon generation.
My only complaint about the game – it released two weeks before Super Smash Bros. Ultimate!
Developer: The Bearded Ladies Publisher: Funcom Platforms: PC, PS4, XBO
I’m an easy target for any game that features tactical, XCOM-like turn-based combat. Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden had the dubious potential to become a budget XCOM – which I probably still would have enjoyed. But by combining solid tactical gameplay with rewarding stealth mechanics and shockingly good voice acting Road to Eden carves its own space in the genre.
Unlike XCOM,Road to Eden features RPG-like characters with their own skill trees and personalities. They’re a bit one-dimensional but the banter and commentary is delightful, particularly the hilarious dialogue heard from enemy zone ghouls on the battlefield.
Stealth is a huge part of the gameplay. While XCOM 2 lets you enter a map in stealth mode to set up an advantageous opening salvo, Road to Eden lets you enter and exit turn-based combat mode as you please. The trick is to isolate and eliminate targets with silenced weapons, just as any stealth game, letting you drop back into stealth mode and continue to turn the tide in your favor.
The post-apocalyptic world is made up of smaller zones where you can find scrap for upgrades as well as new guns and armor. The zones are just big enough to allow some tactical wiggle room without getting lost in – and unlike XCOM the campaign won’t take you 40 or 50+ hours to finish.
It’s a bit rough around the edges and definitely feels like it left a lot on the cutting room floor but as a big fan of the tactics genre Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden provides a unique blend of real time stealth and turn-based tactics.
Mannix, level 3 Human Inquisitive Rogue
Khaless, level 3 Half-Drow Assassin Rogue
Gillian, level 3 Triton Bard of Whispers
George, level 3 Tortle Battle Master Fighter
Therin, level 3 Hill Dwarf Druid of the Moon
After the harrowing battle with a horde of plant-zombies, the party continued following their captured goblin guide Yokka toward his “Iron God.” As they suspected, the thing the goblins were worshiping was a deactivated Shield Guardian – most likely the one Wakanga had told them about. Curiously, it was shaped like a tortle.
The construct was surrounded by three separate tribes: the goblins, the grungs, and some strange plant-fungus creatures the party had never seen before. All three regarded them warily but made no hostile actions. This was sacred ground.
A pig, a duck, and a mutant walk into a bar. Pripp’s Bar, to be precise, located on The Ark, the last safe haven amid the crumbling ruins of a world ravaged by global nuclear warfare and a deadly pandemic. That’s a scene that’ll play out a few hours into Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, but it just as likely could’ve happened more than 30 years ago. The new game translates the Swedish tabletop RPG Mutant, originally published in 1984, into an XCOM-like tactical strategy game.
Much of the actual RPG gameplay from the tabletop game, most recently published as Mutant: Year Zero in 2014, was changed, streamlined, or abandoned in the genre shift. But the classic 80s post-irradiated setting and lore are much the same. Here’s the backstory you might not get if you just straight in, and how the new game differs from its origins.
Metroidvanias and roguelikes are two of the most overused genres, and buzzwords, in indie gaming, but it’s still a genre I tend to love. Dead Cells is anything but a tiresome retread, pulling the best elements of both genres into an instantly likable neon art style of colorful death.
The level designs offer the perfect mixture of procedural generation and carefully crafted locations, while featuring uniquely branching paths that offer compelling choices and new locations to explore without artificially lengthening the game.
The classic 2D combat supports a multitude of playstyles by equipping multiple weapons and subweapons. I can succeed as a trap-deploying coward, a life-stealing hack and slasher, or a lightning whip-wielding fiend.
Dead Cells is a modern roguelike in that the progress you make carries over in the form of collected cells at the end of each level, letting you unlock new weapons and talents for future runthroughs. Death is still painful but much more manageable, and often exciting as you can experiment with different weapon loadouts and new abilities.
Much of the world design is built to respect the player’s time, keeping levels relatively short and sweet, and even including frequent teleporters at the end of any dead ends.
Dead Cells is always challenging but rarely frustrating, and that’s a very fine line to walk in this genre. For 2D action game fans it really doesn’t get much better than this.