Of all our yearly features, our look back at games that were overshadowed is easily our favourite to compile. We often champion ‘hidden gems’ on Twitter, particularly when they’re discounted on the digital stores, but here we’re able to discuss them in full.
We’ve opted for six overlooked titles his year, all of which we’ve spent a considerable amount of time with. Honourable mentions meanwhile include the delightfully crass run ‘n gunner Rad Rodgers, frighteningly authentic 8-bit ‘demake’ Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, story-driven detective drama The Council, and the addictive pop culture time capsule The VideoKid.
Also, the very literal Limbo-alike Missing The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories; literal because the protagonist is able to rip off their own limbs to assist in puzzle solving. It’s from Swery65, so you know you’re in for a mind-altering experience.
When I was much (much) younger, any action figure playset that housed an ‘action feature’ instantly made it to that year’s Christmas list. Things like Castle Grayskull’s “hidden” trapdoor, or Boulder Hill’s delightful combo of a tumbling plastic boulder and gun turret gas pumps made the toy in question beyond desirable.
As such, Strange Brigade – a third-person shooter set during the riveting 1920s – feels like it was tailormade especially for me, involving trap-filled tombs and ruins.
Like Rebellion’s own Sniper Elite series, it’s a one trick pony that pulls off that trick so spectacularly it’s able to carry the weight of the whole experience from start to finish. To wit: Strange Brigade’s combat focuses on destroying large waves of enemies in one fell swoop. Reanimated skeletons, mummies, and other mythological creatures mostly, thanks to the ancient Egypt setting.
Swarms of enemies can be vanquished in various ways. Firstly, there’s a neat side-line of loud and messy explosives including sticky grenades and packs of dynamite. Temporary heavy weapons are another option, limited in ammo but packing a punch. These vary from a blunderbuss shotgun with a widespread, to a flamethrower with an inescapable reach. Finally, each of the playable characters has an ancient amulet to charge by collecting souls, a la Soul Reaver. One character leaps in the air to perform a ground slam, like a 1920’s Tony Stark, while one of the females has a mighty right hook; an attack amusingly accompanied by the chime of a fairground ‘test your strength’ machine.
Visually, it’s a slick package and Xbox One X enhanced to boot. The overgrown environments are detailed, and the vistas spread far into the distance. It’s not uncommon to want to stop and take in the scenery. In fact, you’re actively encouraged to as optional puzzles and hidden collectables are rife.
While only a few puzzles – which mostly take the form of code-cracking mini-games – put your wits to the test, they still help provide a change of pace, as does a jaunt into an underground pirate cove.
To top it all off, the whole shebang is narrated by a charismatic fellow who makes on-the-spot observations, commenting on your shooting proficiency and general performance. It’s even possible to tick him off by standing around idly.
This is easily the most generous package Rebellion has put together, featuring an online co-op mode and a Gears of War-style Horde Mode with waves that come thick and fast.
Rebellion really gave Strange Brigade their all, which only made it all the more disheartening to see it leave the UK chart in a matter of weeks.
We often feel Llamasoft’s games are tailored to suit Jeff and Giles’ own finely-honed arcade skills, throwing new and inexperienced players into the thick of it too soon. Tempest 4000, however, offers an easier ride, regularly throwing a few valuable lifelines your way.
It isn’t until around stage 25, a quarter of the way through, that the difficulty ramps up. By this point, you should be well accustomed to escaping danger at the very last second. The super-zapper smart bomb is recharged between stages, instantly clearing whatever is on the grid, while the jump ability allows enemies congregating on the edge of the grid to be dealt with effortlessly. This score-chaser also has one other rather neat addition – an AI droid. Every time we gained this power-up we breathed a sigh of relief, as their presence almost guarantees a safe passage to the next stage.
It seems that Jeff Minter has dialled down the psychedelics here, too. Previous Llamasoft games are sometimes criticised for becoming too trippy for their own good, with the screen distorting effects obscuring the action. Tempest 4000 remains quite the trip, only now the backdrops and effects no longer distract, allowing you to focus on refining those arcade shooting skills.
We also like the use of vintage Atari slogans on the title screen. Seasoned gamers may notice a few other winks and nods to Atari of yore too, especially within the stage names.
Just to prove how addictive and compelling Tempest is, we booted it up just to grab a couple of screenshots and ended up spending the best part of an hour chasing high scores. It’s a more than welcome addition to the current gaming landscape – Tempest 3K was, lest you forget, released on one of the worst selling consoles of all-time.
When Sony revealed that Tower of Guns – from the superbly named Terrible Posture Games – was debuting as part of July 2015’s PS Plus line-up, we eagerly anticipated its arrival. A bullet hell rogue-like FPS with heavily stylised visuals? Sign us up.
Sadly, Tower of Guns arrived with a whimper rather than a bang. A lack of depth, performance issues, and wildly unpredictable difficulty spikes made for an experience only tolerable in short bursts.
Enter Mothergunship – the game Tower of Guns should’ve been. It’s a remarkable improvement, leaps and bounds over its predecessor. While the original felt like a low budget indie release, Mothergunship’s bigger budget is more than evident. It’s polished, slick, and runs like greased lightning. An improved story mode also gives a stronger sense of purpose and progression, as you take down battlecruisers from the inside to weaken the armada protecting the titular gunship.
From a console on the main deck missions can be picked each with varying difficulty. Failure comes at the cost of all gun parts taken into battle, but thankfully, you get to keep XP and any cash collected in order to rearm and upgrade your mech before jumping back in.
Five paragraphs in and we haven’t even mentioned Mothergunship’s standout feature: gun crafting. Oh boy. You’re presented with a bunch of weapon parts that can be used on their own, if mood suits, or combined to create multi-turreted cannons that engulf the full length of the screen. Experimentation is key, as by rotating cannons and connectors you may be able to squeeze an addition laser canon or quad shotgun onto your custom-made creation. And yes, you can dual wield.
Testing out a new weapon, constructed during quiet spells between firefights, is satisfying; pressing the trigger for the first time and unleashing a messy, lethal, dose of hot lead and lasers give the impression of feeling almost invincible.
Mothergunship’s physical release can be easily found for around £10 – an utter bargain for what’s easily the most improved upon follow-up of the year. It’s a shining example of what can be achieved if a developer takes feedback and criticism on-board.
This extra-terrestrial Left 4 Dead-inspired shooter gained a 6/10 from ourselves, yet it makes this list for one simple reason: all updates since launch have been free. Slowly but surely, developers Holospark are correcting this co-op shooter’s shortcomings, making it more than apparent feedback is being listened to.
At launch, it was noted by many critics that the guns sounded flat and lifeless. Step forward Hollywood sound studio Formosa Group (Blade Runner 2049, Deadpool 2, John Wick 3), who were called in to give weapons a heftier punch. The Invasion updated also added a Horde mode with a slight tower defence slant, plus a character progression system with unlockables. The Inferno update prior to this added new fire-spewing enemies and an extra mission – substantial stuff.
While Earthfall certainly got off to a rough start, the fact that developers Holospark didn’t leave it for dead (zing!) should be commended. The low active player counts are still a concern, but there’s no denying that Earthfall’s future looks brighter than it did at launch.
Yoku’s Island Express
The titular Yoku arrives on a tropical island not for a brief getaway, but to start a new life as the island’s postman. Indeed, it’s a profession not usually associated with video games. By chatting to the locals, the minuscule lead soon learns that the island’s guardians are in danger, and so in addition to reducing the backlog of mail, there’s a wealth of quests to partake to restore balance and save the day.
In this pinball-based Metroidvania – think along the lines of the Mega Drive semi-classic Sonic Spinball – it quickly becomes apparent that Yoku’s upgrades aren’t quite the typical assortment. They’re so outlandish, in fact, that it’s impossible to guess what plaything you’ll be given next. As the new postmaster, he’s supposed to carry a postman’s bugle. With no such instrument available, the upbeat bug resorts to using a party horn that emits a pleasingly high-pitched toot.
Then comes a slug vacuum, featuring the first of many playful mechanics. The island’s slugs are explosive and must be detonated within a tight time limit, or face being propelled across the screen; something more amusing than it may sound here.
As Yoku gains access to the deeper, darker, parts of the island the difficulty level kicks up a notch, with many of the pinball-focused areas requiring decent timing and ample flipper skills. The stakes are never high, luckily – you’re free to spend as much time as you need to get Yoku to the next area. The only punishment is the loss of currency, which is soon replenished by bouncing off bumpers and whatnot. That said, there’s satisfaction to be had by carrying around a bulging wallet.
After the ending credits rolled, we were still left with a long list of things to do: parcels to post, hidden collectables to round-up, mailboxes to stuff and one final, all-encompassing, secret to uncover. The fact that we wanted to spend more time in Yoku’s company, rather than play something else, speaks volumes.
It was a close call between management sims Railway Empire and Surviving Mars, but ultimately the former won a place in the limelight. It’s the more accessible of the two, being something of a spiritual successor to the PC classic Transport Tycoon.
The concept is remarkably simple: place track and purchase trains to connect American cities and industries with rail, all in the name of making a steady profit. Mastering the UI takes around an hour, with some helpful tutorials in place to speed things along. Thoughtful touches are numerous, such as the way track automatically connects, as well as prompts to alert if something isn’t quite right.
Generating profit isn’t as easy as it sounds, though. Cities have factories that only produce or require certain things, so it pays to keep an eye on supply and demand. There’s a slight SimCity element present too, as it’s possible to build museums and other facilities in order to boost a town’s population. Thanks to the early 19th-century setting, the cities all have potential to grow drastically – zoom in and you’ll see citizens going about their business on horse and carriage.
While it’s easy to joke about Railway Empire being Xbox One X enhanced, the tiny trains do feature an impressive amount of detail. it’s nice to put construction aside for a bit and follow a train as it makes its journey through the mountain ranges, towns and countryside, loading and unloading its precious cargo as it goes. The Sunday afternoon we spent playing through the campaign mode was one of the most relaxing we’d had in some time.
Not a game for all and sundry, but if you’re up for something sedate, then don’t hesitate to get on board.