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.
My top ten favorite games of the year, presented in ascending order each day leading into the holidays. Look for my full Top Ten list with categories and awards on December 24!
#9 Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden
Developer: The Bearded Ladies
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.
Road to Eden is based on the old Mutant Swedish tabletop RPG from the 80s, recently reborn as Mutant: Year Zero. Shameless plug alert: I wrote an article diving into the adaptation from tabletop RPG to tactical video game for PC Gamer earlier this month.
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.
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.
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.
Pacific Rim meets Chess isn’t exactly the most common elevator pitch for indie games, yet it perfectly describes Into the Breach, the long-awaited sophomore release from beloved FTL: Faster Than Light developers Subset Games.
Into the Breach successfully retains all the fun roguelike challenges and tactical strategy of FTL while minimizing most randomized frustrations, creating a compelling tactical board game.
The Fire Emblem series has exploded in the last few years. The tactical role-playing series has been around since the 90s, but only in the U.S. since 2003. With Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia we’re already getting our third Fire Emblem game for the Nintendo 3DS – but it’s actually a remake of 1992’s Fire Emblem Gaiden.
Playing the remake of the second game in the storied franchise with updated sprites, 3D dungeon crawls, polished voice acting, and anime cutscenes is an incredible treat for any Fire Emblem fan.
Not long ago the strategy genre was struggling when it came to the final frontier. Fans of endlessly replayable strategy games and galactic empires frequently cite 1996’s Master of Orion II as the pinnacle of the sub-genre. Nearly two decades have gone by without much competition.
Between 2015’s Galactic Civilizations III, last year’s Stellaris, and the recently released Endless Space 2, I’m officially declaring it the Golden Age of Space Strategy Games. But which one is right for you, O Conquistador of the Cosmos?
The original Endless Space launched in 2012 as the debut title from indie developer Amplitude Studios. It posited the Civilization-in-Space concept that had been tackled several times before. Endless Space offered a simple yet effective interface and many interesting new gameplay mechanics to make it a very underrated turn-based strategy game.
Endless Space 2 is very much a direct sequel, building upon all the core gameplay features of the original. This time around, Amplitude has several more games under their belt – specifically the much more intriguing and innovative Endless Legend.
Endless Space 2 utilizes all the best elements of Endless Legend and stirs in a well-integrated political system to craft a fantastic follow-up that easily emerges from its Civilization shadow.
The tale of family, love, and war remains captivating throughout each tactical battle in Fire Emblem Fates.
Fire Emblem may not be as recognizable as Final Fantasy or Pokémon. But it is one of the most prolific franchises in gaming. Fire Emblem Fates combines the series’ trademark chess-like battles with building up relationships between your soldiers. The tale of family, love, and war remains captivating throughout each tactical battle.
The immediate biggest difference between Fire Emblem Fates and 2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening is the split story and dual release. Early on your avatar is forced to choose between two warring factions. It’s a critical decision that determines whom your allies and enemies will be for the rest of the game. It’s also decided for you depending on which version you buy.
Just a few weeks ago I finally laid waste to the Void Dragon and completed Divinity: Original Sin. It’s a phenomenal tactical RPG that modernizes the genre while still retaining all the best parts that make those epic computer role-playing games so memorable.
It’s also incredibly long.
My playthrough took me almost 90 hours – that’s three solid months of giving it as much attention as I can while still playing online games with buddies and reviewing and writing about new games.
I also purchased Bravely Default in late July as a little birthday present to myself. I hadn’t really played a major 3DS game since I beat Fire Emblem in April (not counting Shovel Knight) and was looking forward to this well-regarded JRPG to tide me over till Super Smash Bros released in early October.
After two months I hit the 50 hour mark and completed chapter four….of eight. Literally at that point some kind of dimensional rift takes place, and our heroes are thrown back into the world where they have to do everything all over again. I stared at the game for a long time at that point.
Read the full post on my gaming blog on Game Informer >>