Most videogame RPGs cite Dungeons & Dragons as their primary inspiration, but few directly adapt its rules. In a world of cooldowns and mana bars, D&D’s dice rolls, bonus actions, spell slots, and long rests can feel clunky and restrictive when applied to a videogame. Even Baldur’s Gate 3 makes many notable changes to make D&D more user-friendly, while indie RPG Solasta wears the 5e ruleset as a badge of honor, warts and all.
This is a game where combat is on a grid, where every d20 rolls on screen, and where jumping away from enemies is a sometimes-treat rather than a regular part of every meal.
While it may forever lurk in the shadow of Baldur’s Gate 3, its crunchy, dice-heavy combat is just what I want in a lean adaptation of the tabletop RPG.
My knowledge of Ancient Indian culture doesn’t extend much beyond the names of Final Fantasy summons Shiva and Ramuh. But if indie brawler Raji: An Ancient Epic had existed alongside Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, and Jason and the Argonauts in my formative years, I would have been just as absorbed by the fascinating, culturally rich world of Ancient India it presents.
Raji: An Ancient Epic explores the woefully underused world of Hindu Mythology, an intriguing setting of warring gods and grotesque demons that creates a fantastic backdrop for a hack-and-slash brawler. Unfortunately the early level demo is plagued with serious framerate issues and performance bugs.
Desolation? Check. Old Gods? Check. ‘Souls’ literally in the title? Check. Eldest Souls isn’t shy about its influences. It’s a pixelated souls-like with nothing but large-scale boss battles. I play a cloaked figure called the Crusader who carries a sword so comically oversized it would make Cloud Strife blush. The world has gone to absolute hell, and it’s up to him and his sword to kick every Old God’s ass up and down the Ancient Citadel.
At least that’s the plan. In reality I get my butt handed to me again and again by the very first enemy. The Watchdog is at least three times my size with a canine face, a jagged sword, and a ribcage shield, and it murdered me in a matter of seconds. The Watchdog leaps, slashes, and charges with frustratingly quick reflexes, every hit shaving off a third to half my health.
I was surrounded on all sides. I’d managed to rescue the prisoner, but now we had to fight our way back out of the dungeon. Reinforcements poured in from the south, so I sent my beleaguered party north. When we made it to a room with pressure plates and fireball-spewing statues, more reinforcements spawned at the entrance and quickly closed in.
What followed was a harrowing, tense turn, as I carefully positioned my warden for a whirlwind strike, blasted out a fireball with my acolyte, and tried to figure out what I could do with a useless unarmed prisoner. That’s when I remembered the pressure plates, and smiled as I noticed the bad guys were standing pretty close to those statues. He may have been unarmed, but his legs were working just fine.
That wasn’t the first dungeon escapade I just barely scraped through in Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest, a new tactical RPG from the creators of Legend of Grimrock.
Tactical strategy games have seen a resurgence in recent years, with excellent reboots and sequels for series like XCOM and Fire Emblem. But it’s pixel-perfect indie studio Chucklefish that has taken up the mantle of re-imagining the Advance War series (which had inspired Fire Emblem’s initial localization outside Japan).
Indie games have long filled the void of classic genres and gameplay styles left behind by bigger studios. Wargroove is the perfect example of an indie studio rebooting a beloved series while infusing their own story, with several modern improvements and an astonishing amount of content.
The honeymoon for nostalgia-fueled Kickstarter video game projects has long since passed. Older games and genres from the 80s and 90s inspired a treasure trove of multi-million dollar projects, to varying degrees of success. Despite the digital gold rush, I never expected one of these Kickstarter fruits to bear a new ToeJam & Earl game, let alone it be quite good.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove is the fourth game in the bizarre but strangely memorable 90s series. But it’s also a triumphant recreation of the 1991 original, which has all the early trappings of a solid roguelike dungeon crawler, that happens to star a pair of funky aliens. While some gameplay elements are quite frustrating, Back in the Groove is dripping with 90s charm, lots of replayability, and fantastic co-op.
Sleep Tight presents the classic monster-in-the-closet tale and transforms it into a kid-themed tower defense game, married with the gun-play of a twin-stick shooter. Both aspects are decently executed if a bit shallow, and the theme of defending your bedroom against an onslaught of Pixar-friendly monsters is a fun one.
Yet Sleep Tight lacks the mechanical depth of other tower defense games, and surviving against the hordes is more of an exercise in quantity over quality.
Many video game genres overlap and blend well together. Shooting and third-person action. Narrative-rich adventure with first-person exploration. RPG elements in just about everything. Yet in the paraphrased words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, just because you can combine genres doesn’t mean you should.
The Swords of Ditto is a cautionary tale. The concept seems solid: combine the basic structure of classic top-down, 2D Zelda within the framework of a challenging roguelike, creating a frustrating experience that relies too much on repetition.
“We wanted to make a beer game,” says Michael Austin, creative director and co-founder of Hidden Path Entertainment. “That’s a game you can play with one hand while holding a beer.”
Though Austin and his fellow veterans at Hidden Path had previously worked on several games, Defense Grid: The Awakening was their first self-published title. They released it in 2008, when the tower defense genre was still mostly mods for games like Warcraft 3 and a few smartphone and browser games. Austin saw a fellow employee playing Desktop Tower Defense, and became inspired. “I wanted to make a AAA tower defense game, since the genre had only been in mods and flash games so far. I wanted to make Defense Grid because that’s a game I wanted to play.”
“Growing up I’d read articles and see pictures in Nintendo Power about behind-the-screen game development,” says Andrew Aversa, lead designer and programmer at Impact Gameworks, who recently released roguelike dungeon crawler Tangledeep. “I thought it was so interesting, but that fell by the wayside.” Though games were his first love, it was music, specifically game music, that captured his attention in his formative years.
Aversa is best known as Zircon, one of the most prolific video game remixers and professional game-focused composers in the industry. “In 2002 a friend introduced me to Music Maker 2000 Deluxe,” he says. “I had taken piano lessons as a kid and liked it, but once I could make music on a computer I got really into it. Being able to adjust knobs and sliders to create different sounds—I couldn’t get enough of it.”