I enjoy sifting through games swirling around the periphery of public conciousness, these esoteric gems tend to push the envelope more than their big budget counterparts. They tend towards a more affordable bite size gaming experience, with a nurturing community of fans around them, rather than the more hostile big game communities. But most of all I enjoy the thrill of finding a gleaming gem in the darkness, and then bringing them to the attention of my gaming friends. I’d like to think I was an independant gamer with a pioneering spirit and would heartily stamp the words ‘gaming evangelist’ on my forehead for the sake of getting the word out on one of these games.
I’ve come up with a list of the ten independant gems I’ve excavated and I’d like to polish them up and put them on a velveteen pedestal for all to see:
10: Cortex Command
Cortex Command is a game in the making, meaning its more of a proof of concept, with some development still required to flesh it out to a full product. However what there is available to play with certainly delivers enough value for money to justify the discounted pre-order (support) price.
The game is a 2d sprite based action puzzler with remote controlled ‘actors’, realistic physics, deformable terrain, resource collection, tech tree purchasing and an array of weapons and equipment that really do provide a true sandbox to play in. It plays out like a real time version of worms crossed with a platformer puzzle game and a 2d shooter with jet packs.
The current version of the game includes a couple of tutorial levels, a level editor and some multiplayer features, having played an hour’s worth of the tutorial level, I was utterly entranced by the game and had to show my support for it’s continued development. It’s truly a physics based box of tricks that will have you coming back for more.
Spectromancer is an evolution of a non-collectible card battling game known as Astral Masters. The game was developed by several of the original creators of Magic the Gathering and the developer of Astral Masters, and it is a more tightly knit and polished game where you can play through a single player campaign, or take it online and join several tournaments and duelling ladders.
The artwork is outstanding, the battle mechanic has been honed to perfection, simple to play, difficult to master. Since the game is a non-collectible card dueller, theres no worry that purchasing esoteric rare cards are going to affect the balance, and you’ll have to trawl zillions of websites to find the most effective build. Play the game, experience the different units and magic types and just enjoy yourself. If you want to pursue that competitive edge, then take the game online.
8: Battle of Tiles
Battle of Tiles is a unique concept, using simple square tiles. Arrange an RPG like adventuring party (Knights, Archers, Mages, Priests), and then advance through wave after wave of oncoming enemies, shifting your party arrangement and placement to overcome unforseen incidents on the way. Level up your units, rotate them in and out of the front line to provide an even spread of experience, and if you accrue enough finance, you can bribe the enemy to join your side and then take them into your ranks and start levelling them up.
The games graphics are simple and functional enough, and the puzzle like quality of some of the boss battles really does require a level of thought and manoeuvre. The only downside is that the levels are very long, and if you fail you lose your save game, so you have to start again from the beginning. It’s worth a look if you like tweaking battle formations on an abstract almost boardgame level, and the levelling up, tweaking and purchasing of new units feeds an addiction to ‘one more go’ – just to try out a new unit or slightly different formation.
I’ve seen another game on the iPhone that follows a similar tile based party combat mechanic, its called The Myth of Hero Legends, and the graphics are a bit more polished, but the party size is very much smaller in scale.
7: The Spirit Engine 2
The Spirit Engine 2, a successor to the original freeware title The Spirit Engine is a 2d storied RPG with a real time tactical battle setup. The battles are on a configurable timer, so you can slow the pace down to ponder over your decisions or speed it up and have a more arcade experience. You can have three party members of different classes, and they have skillsets and abilities that you can set to fire off when the combat timer begins. There are different cooldowns on these skills, so you need to manage your players abilities, but you can setup custom chains whereby a Priest would fire an offensive spell, and then two heals, and this chain would be repeated over time, until you select another action in the drop down below the character.
You can play with party composition, but you’re almost certainly going to want a Knight, Musketeer and a Priest for damage soaking, range attacks and heals, but the system is flexible enough to try more esoteric builds. Again, its quite refreshing to see an indie developer utilising 2d with some excellent artwork to produce a decent tactical RPG that can be enjoyed in bite size casual chunks.
Another aspect to note is the excellent soundtrack by Josh Whelchel that accompanies the game.
6: IronGrip Warlord
IronGrip Warlord is a co-operative shooter/RTS/tower defense hybrid that pits you and your team against wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemy. The tower defense/RTS aspects to the game really elevate it to a strategic level beyond the shooting mechanics. You earn money as you slay the oncoming horde, and use that money to buy defensive structures to build at key chokepoints on the map (using a top down commanders overview), and then you can assist and maintain those emplacements with your own weapons fire or repairing skills. You’ll come up against different classes of foes, such as rocketeers or flamers, or even large armoured vehicles and a rather impressive mechanical spider crab machine. Hopefully by the time the heavy offensive troops are coming into play you’ve built a strong enough defense to withstand it. The enemy have to destroy your Stronghold positioned on the map, and you can attempt to repair it, but if they’re at your front door, you can more or less assume your defensive measures have failed.
The graphics are nothing special, but they are functional and themed well in the steampunk world of IronGrip. The game supports multiplayer and if you can find the people to play with is a thoroughly enjoyable tactical romp. I particularly liked the single shot “olde worlde” muskets you use initially before you have enough money to upgrade, they seemed to add a lot of historical crediblity to the gunplay and again reinforced the steampunk theme. I’ve written about IronGrip Warlord previously, with more first impressions of the game, and a new patch has just been released, tweaking the setup and increasing the difficulty of the AI.
5: Conquest – Medieval Realms
Conquest is a strategic board game of territory control, unit purchase and conflict, brought to life with a pleasing miniature art style, hex boards and multiplayer capabilities. The game provides quite detailed historical scenarios attached to the abstract boardgame setup, and its simple to play mechanics really do make it a short burst casual piece of tactical gaming.
4: Immortal Defense
Immortal Defense is an imaginative story based tower defense game, where the abstract concepts and emotional writings that accompany the gameplay are part of its appeal. But mostly, it was one of the first Tower Defense games to employ a more action-orientated almost shoot em up ethic, whereby you not only passively dropped defensive controls down, but you also had to guide your entity around to actively help shoot and whittle down the enemies health. So the game seemed to keep you flip flopping from defensive tactical mode to action combat support.
I recently did an interview for The Claw, with the developer of Immortal Defense, Paul Eres of StudioEres, so if you want to know about some of the design decisions behind Immortal Defense or you are curious about his next project, Saturated Dreamers, then check it out.
3: Evochron Legends
Evochron Legends is a game of space exploration and exploitation mixed up with a healthy dose of space combat and ship customisation, not to mention planetfall and atmospheric flight, along with resource mining or mission running and trading. To put it in a nutshell, the current evolution of the Evochron Universe, is the spiritual successor to Elite. What stands out the most about the game is the open ended exploration and advanced “newtonion” physics space flight and combat model. This is a game where you’ll need to learn to fly your craft, and you’ll need to master all sorts of flight controls in space to be able to take part in the frantic combat available.
Did I mention the game was positively beautiful?
Did I mention the game is moddable, and you can customise not only the ships but the Heads Up Display (HUD) you play with? I managed to cobble together a Battlestar Galactica DRADIS replacement for the HUD, seen below:
But the game has several key elements that make it more accessible to your average gamer, and not just the domain of the flight sim aficianado. These are:
- Thorough in-game Tutorial – your first hour or so with the game will walk you through all the elements you need to master .
- Mulitplayer support – you can play the game both online (on a 64 player server) or offline interchangeably. If you’re having trouble in the game, go online, and some enthusiastic pilots from the Evochron community will be more than willing to help you out.
- Close contact with the Developer – The developer, Vice, retains close support and advise with the Starwraith community, and often player suggestions make it into the game and the experience is tweaked for the good of the community.
The game has been hand crafted, and optimised, and evolved from numerous previous StarWraith titles. Its developed by one guy, and its supported by him and his loyal community, and it stands head and shoulders above the competition, with the likes of the egosoft’s X game series.
I’ve written previously about Evochron Legends for UKGamer if you want to know more. But for me, theres no better space exploration and combat game out there.
2: Solium Infernum
If you’re a regular reader of SFG, you’ll no doubt have guessed that Solium Infernum would have been listed, since a huge part of the site here is dedicated to my Game Log reports of a PBeM (Play By eMail) game I’m currently in.
Solium Infernum is like no other game I’ve ever played, its part boardgame abstraction, part diplomacy, part card game. It combines elements from several games and fuses them together with a mythology that even Dante would be proud of.
I could list out mechanics such as land grab, territory control, army construction and hero management, as well as resource collecting and husbandy, along with intelligence gathering, deviance and subterfuge, all washed down with lashings of demonic flavour. But I’d not be able to convey the actual attraction of the game, and just listing the turn based mechanics would come across as quite dull. I think what stands the game ahead from the crowd, is that it limits the player so much per turn, but maximises the actual strategic choices available, that you really need to mull over every order, because every step of your progress relies on important ramifications of your own decisions.
If you like complex but rewarding strategy games, Solium Infernum is a no brainer, just buy it.
1: AI War: Fleet Command
AI War: Fleet Command is at the top of the list, for a number of reasons, but mainly because it is such a fiendishly clever concept, well executed and delivered at such good value with regular updates, expansions and huge scope of replayability and longevity that it just deserves to be an unadulterated success. The game is a 2d space RTS/4X co-operative strategy game, that takes all the good from very commercial RTS’es and amalgamates them all into an asymmetric conflict against an astoundingly well put together AI. With co-operative multiplayer including drop in and drop out of features, with an astounding number of spaceships to control, yet a straightforward mechanism for pulling off quite complex battle tactics its a sight to behold. Underpinning the whole game is a Grand Strategy ethos, that rewards careful planning, and cautious expansion, so while you can become very involved at the planetary combat level, you are always having to think ahead about how you scout, move, covering your exits, and entry points to new systems.
I could talk on and on about the game, and I have done on numerous occasions, having reviewed the game for UKGamer, then conducted an interview with the developer Chris Park, and later re-reviewed the game and then participated in a second epic interview with Chris, via Google Wave, for The Claw.
The developer Chris Park, is such an amiable chap, and he excels in community support, and transparency of his development process, that you can’t help but be in awe at the guy and his work. I for one will be keeping a keen eye on the subsequent expansions (The Zenith Remnant) of AI War and the other games planned for development by Arcengames.
If theres only one strategy game you buy this year, I’d say make it AI War: Fleet Command, now available on Steam, Impulse, Gamersgate etc.