In most eldritch horror fiction, the heroes’ goal is to prevent the end of the world. In Stygian: Reign of the Old Ones, an isometric tactical RPG, the end of the world has already happened.
“We define Stygian as a role-playing game about horror, loss, and madness,” says Can Oral (pronounced Jon Rahl), lead designer and creative director at Cultic Games. “It takes place after the awakening of the great old ones. Your goal isn’t about saving the world, it’s already too late.”
The story takes place in the city of Arkham, which has been torn loose from the ruins of Earth and floats under an alien sky beneath a perpetual lair of gloom and despair. The city has been divided up between pagan cultists and ruthless mobsters, and many of the residents have either gone insane, or are teetering close to the edge.
At age 21, Jon Shafer was asked to be the lead designer for Sid Meier’s Civilization 5. It was a dream come true for a young designer who had been creating mods for Civ, just a few years before. Within three years of shipping Civ 5, though, he’d quit lucrative jobs at Firaxis and Stardock and suffer the crushing reality of being an isolated programming prodigy with ADHD, trying to make his dream game. It all came crashing down in 2015. “I had nothing left, financially, physically, or mentally,” he wrote. “The last shreds of creativity and productivity finally slipped between my fingers.”
Since 2015 Shafer has been slowly building his life back up from ruin. He spent six hard years on his passion project At the Gates, finally finishing and releasing it this January. Here’s how he got there.
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.
Six years, two Kickstarter campaigns, and one home equity loan later, Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption has finally been released. “A year after the first Kickstarter we were approached by an outside investor,” says Corey Cole, part of the husband-wife team behind Hero-U. “We would’ve gotten half a million in additional funding. The problem was they wanted 50% of the game’s sales for life. At the time we felt it was too much to give up. Had we looked into our crystal ball in 2015 or 2017, we would’ve jumped on that.”
I spoke to both Corey and Lori Cole about the lengthy, yet passionate development of Hero-U, an adventure-RPG modeled after the 1990s Sierra series that once made them design icons: Quest for Glory.
The life of a cloned, intergalactic bounty hunter is about what I expected, though with a lot more loot boxes. Brig 12 offers an interesting mix of character class progression, tactical turn-based battles, and crew management, but it’s hampered every step of the way by free-to-play card mechanics that turn the gameplay into a repetitive grind.
The basic loop of Brig 12 is simple: Select a bounty target, track them using my crew—a fun mechanic I’ll talk about more later—then beam down with my landing party for a series of turn-based battles.
The fighter is too slow and clunky. The mage brittle and lacking. But the rogue feels just right. Rocketcat Games’ pixelated roguelike dungeon crawler Wayward Souls didn’t click with me until I stepped into the shoes of Renee the Rogue.
Renee has only a single ability aside from her basic dagger attack: the all-important dash. With a reliable way to avoid attacks I finally reached some level of success as I plunged deeper into the randomly generated dungeons… until I was devoured by a horde of angry boars.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Heroes of Might and Magic 3 is not only one of the best PC strategy games ever made, but one of the best games period, perfectly capturing the magic of building castles and battling fantasy armies. Unfortunately 3DO filed for bankruptcy soon after producing the disappointing fourth entry in the series in the early 2000s, taking New World Computing, the developers of Might and Magic, with them. Ubisoft swooped in to take over, and would then go on to produce increasingly mediocre sequels.
But fortunately for us, in 2008 King’s Bounty: The Legend came from Russia, with love.