If critical thinking and strategic preparation to defeat your opponent are your strong suits, 2022 has you covered. In the year 2022, our best strategy game is…
Variation is a classical music approach in which a composer takes a single melody or musical concept and explores it in a variety of ways, perhaps twisting it into dozens of various styles and structures without the work being repetitive or tiresome.
When this isn’t an idea exclusive to music, it’s one I couldn’t help but make of while playing Inscryption — an unusual link, given that it’s a horror-themed roguelite deck-building card game. But scratch under the surface of that fairly familiar shell, and you’ll find a symphony of thrilling twists, creative concepts, and continually surprise variants on the principles that had me fascinated from the first minute.
There’s a lot more to Inscryption than meets the eye, and a lot of what makes it so impressive are the unexpected places it takes you. That means that discussing many of the precise moments that make it so great may dilute their impact, so I’ll try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible – both in terms of the story and some of the mechanics.
However, one need only watch the game’s trailer to feel that it isn’t just another Slay the Spire-inspired entry in a genre that has recently become a little too derivative. In fact, it manages to live in that genre while tearing it apart at the same time.
Inscryption, like developer Daniel Mullins Games’ legendary Pony Island, engages with meta themes in a variety of ways. In this example, you start by playing a roguelike card game against a strange foe shrouded in obscurity, but the general structure isn’t designed to be infinitely replayed.
Inscryption took me approximately nine hours to reach, and it’s a true campaign that tells a compelling and eerie story, pokes fun at card game culture, and stands on its own as a genuinely interesting card game.
That game consists of head-to-head battles against an AI opponent in which you play monster cards on your side of the board that will automatically attack whatever is across from them each turn, whether it be opposing creatures or nothing at all.
If it’s the latter, any damage they would have done is instead added to your opponent’s side of a tipping scale, but any damage you take will tilt the scale back in your favor — the match is ended once one side of the scale is at least five damage heavier than the other.
As a result, each battle becomes a strategic tug-of-war in which taking a hit one turn could put you just out of reach the next. Exciting bosses can also test you with long encounters and unexpected twists, ranging from a miner who turns your creatures into gold chunks to some later ones that completely defied my expectations.
That is the one constant in Inscryption, yet the creatures you utilize, how you play them, the extra mechanics they have, and the metagame structure around each match all change dramatically as you continue. For instance, the resource for playing stronger cards requires you to sacrifice smaller creatures in order to fuel larger ones, which can make to some difficult but rewarding decisions.
However, you’ll long see cards that spend “bones” generated when a friendly creature dies, adding a degree of complexity to each decision. Later sections even delve into concepts more akin to Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, keeping Inscryption’s very simple core interesting.
Similarly, while it begins with a branching roguelike structure familiar to anybody who has played Slay the Spire, allowing you to choose between pathways and upgrade your deck as you go, it does not remain that way throughout.
Without giving anything away, Inscryption’s skin and bones can change just as much as its meat, yet the heart at its core keeps everything pounding to a familiar beat. That’s also a good thing, because it’s not hard to come across exploitable methods that feel great in the moment but drastically minimize any difficult choices, meaning particular sections may start to wear thin if they ran on their own for too long.
Instead, you get a delectable buffet of all the games Inscryption could have been, with none of them seeming like a disconnected demo or half-baked concept, and it’s pretty fantastic to watch it mature so thoroughly.
Of fact, flinging cards is only one part of Inscryption’s demands. It will also require you to rise up from the literal table you are playing at on occasion in order to explore the 3D area it is held in. There, you’ll complete simple escape room-style puzzles like figuring out how to unlock a container or finding the combination to a safe, many of which are cleverly related to the card game itself.
The matches itself were where I had the most fun, but the overall vibe of Inscryption shines through in these sections. They aren’t the most complex riddles in the world, but the overall vibe of Inscryption shines through. Its gloomy, retro-style art style is excellent throughout the campaign, and the spooky tone is wonderfully unnerving without ever plunging into true “horror.”
And, while it’s difficult to discuss much about the plot without giving too much away, Inscryption’s eerie tale is nevertheless a very intriguing one. It’s told in a combination of written dialogue and FMV cutscenes, and it’s got a great (and often shockingly amusing) structure to hold all of its creative ideas.
It feels like the kind of urban legend that would be spread around creepypasta message boards and other corners of the internet, but not in a dated or derivative way.
Inscryption is a strange and delightful meta-twist on the recent explosion of digital card games. Its frightening plot serves as the ideal vehicle for the game’s ever-evolving mechanisms, which keep the simple yet fascinating card game at its core fresh at all times.
It’s a bizarre game, but Inscryption is excellent because it’s also a lot of fun – and, like Pony Island before it, you should definitely walk in knowing as little as possible.
2. Loop Hero
Combat is traditionally one of the best aspects of an RPG. The tactical judgments, the number crunching, the scheming, and the strength conservation for future battles. But, if you take away character control and almost everything else except crunching stat numbers and filling in the map, what’s left? You get Loop Hero, which turns out to be a game with a lot of interesting ideas and a strange fantasy world that demands your attention.
This odd mix of idle game autobattler, roguelite deckbuilding, and puzzley tile placement is unlike anything else. With its buffet of synergies and clever methods, this exploratory experiment captivated me in so profoundly that I frequently lost track of time while playing. I only escaped because there isn’t much else to it once the stat-building tasks are accomplished.
Before we get into the game’s oddly mesmerizing and unconventional gameplay, it should be noted that this is the best bizarre apocalyptic fantasy scenario since Dark Souls. The world of Loop Hero is coming to an end; no one can remember anything anymore, thus everything is fading. Even abstract concepts like permanence and knowledge are fading into oblivion.
Even the intricate pixel art images of the evil guys don’t know what’s going on in this delightfully scary, bewildering realm. Except for your lone hero, who wanders a circular path through the nothingness, fighting enemies and — most importantly — remembering things before returning to a campfire to rest.
From bandits unclear why they’re robbing to goblins that have somehow remembered themselves into existence, you have odd, surreal discussions with the people and creatures you meet. Conversations and unlocked lore nuggets are delightfully meandering anomalies.
For the loop itself, which starts as a featureless, angular path through the lonely darkness, the map is depicted with beautifully simple pixel visuals. Only your hero – a 4-bit blob of white pixels – and a smattering of bouncing green bubbles symbolizing basic slime blob foes – live there.
The art in combat is more detailed, with 8-bit warriors slugging it out with rudimentary attack animations, albeit the sprites don’t change with weapon changes or as foes level up, as they would in a 1990 RPG. The similarly antiquated music is also enjoyable, even if a few tracks repeat themselves much too frequently for the few of hours Loop Hero is likely to take you to complete. Because battles are hands-off, you won’t be able to do much in the first few minutes.
Once you’re in a fight, your fate is determined by your and your opponents’ Attack Speed, Defense, and Damage stats, as well as the percentage possibility gods awarding you more Crits, Counters, and Evades than the other side. This holds true even in boss fights: it’s all about your stats vs. theirs. So, for the first few uneventful circles, it’s a good time to replenish your water glass or head to the kitchen for some munchies.
Loop Hero, on the other hand, quickly occupies and challenges you – and here is where the ability to halt between battles comes in handy. As your hero fights, they acquire cards that represent map tiles, and the premise is that placing these tiles causes your hero to “remember” that elements such as forest groves, mountains, villages, rivers, and more were always part of the world, returning them to reality.
However, there are drawbacks to the benefits that certain tiles provide (mostly small things like increased attack speed for forests or a town that heals some HP as your hero passes through).
Vampires emerge from their castles, skeletons prowl graveyards, fishmen emerge from rivers, and gargoyles soar in and land just about wherever. One of the most difficult aspects of Loop Hero for me was striking a balance between adding important tiles and not overwhelming my hero with new adversaries.
Watching the map transform from a blank canvas to an overpowering collage is a satisfying sense of progression that at least partially compensates for your character’s lack of customisation. The subdued hue, as well as the clunky pixel typeface in which all of the text and stats appear, aren’t for everyone.
(Which, thankfully, you can change to something more eye-friendly or dyslexic-friendly.) While the loot that drops in battle is a significant part of what keeps you busy at first, you soon have to stop and consider which stats are best for your class.
Do you want your Warrior’s automatic health regen or vampirism to acquire health with each attack buffed? What stats would your Necromancer give up to be able to conjure another skeleton to their posse of the dead?
You’re always exchanging one sword or magic ring for a gleaming new one, but this is where Loop Hero gets a little too random: You’re out of luck if you don’t obtain the weapon drop you need for a number of loops because your damage won’t keep up.
Loop Hero is something new and interesting in the area of RPGs, and it does not disappoint. Its fantasy fiction structure is shockingly imaginative, and its largely automatic gameplay is engrossing.
However, it falls short of being groundbreaking, and its emphasis on a tedious grind and uninteresting stats pales in comparison to roguelikes that prioritize testing out new builds over optimizing old ones. It has a shorter lifespan than many of its contemporaries, yet nothing compares to it.
3. Age of Empires IV
Inside and out, Age of Empires 4 is a base-building, sword-fighting, village-pillaging RTS in the classic form. Playing as the obstinate English against the gallant French feels like stepping back in time – not only to the match’s backdrop of the High and Late Middle Ages, but to a different period of strategy games altogether. And there are other things about it that feel extremely good, like comfort food for older players.
However, it is in the few places where Relic has taken risks that this battlefield shines and feels current. Aside from that, in a world where Age of Empires 2 Definitive Edition already exists, it often looks overly cautious and safe. You can easily slip into the armored boots of most of Age 4’s factions if you’ve been sending peasants out to hunt animals, mine gold, and cut wood for decades, as I have.
Knowing the rock-paper-scissors interaction between spears, horses, and bows is essential for consistently winning pitched battles. In any head-to-head battle, a fast raid to slaughter some of your opponent’s villagers and shut down their economy can be more strategically valuable than victory.
Building walls and other defensive constructions turns the late game into a tense chess match in which map control is crucial, while high-tech weaponry like cannons will eventually break the stalemate and lead to a decisive sweep for whoever deploys them most successfully. When you’re up against an equally skilled opponent, the pacing is just right.
I was especially impressed by the semi-randomized skirmish maps, which let you select a biome, as well as a layout, to define the colors, tree types, and general vibes, ranging from European Temperate to Asian Steppe to Taiga.
They all present distinct tactical challenges, ranging from two opposing peaks overlooking a valley that feels eerily similar to a StarCraft 2 tournament map to wide open layouts with a lot of unit-concealing woodland in the middle that fosters a clever guerilla battle and a lot of deception.
However, some of them can feel unbalanced; mountain passages, for example, will always benefit castle-building civs over nomads like the Mongols. However, there is a great range of well-designed battlefields.
While I was concerned that naval warfare would feel like an afterthought given how little Relic talked about it in the build up to launch, it’s been properly fleshed out, making island layouts a compelling possibility in and of themselves.
However, I didn’t feel like there was enough new here for six of the eight playable factions. They all play differently, after all; unique techs, units, and locations are great for building an identity, invoking historical inspiration, and varied up how you maximize your economy.
Imperial Officials that travel around collecting taxes from all of your buildings provide the Chinese with a large portion of their gold income. The Abbasids receive the Baghdad House of Wisdom, which establishes them as a technological leader and – hilariously, given its real-world fate — offers neighboring structures fire resistance.
However, these minor tweaks didn’t do much to change the fact that practically everything in Age 4 might have existed ten years ago. That includes the graphics, which don’t look particularly impressive even on high settings, especially since I can play any Total War game released before 2010 and see an order of magnitude more units, considerably more detailed models, and far higher-fidelity surroundings.
It’s not like Relic created this on a tight budget, though, with Microsoft signing the checks. At the same time, new mechanical ideas like the ability to conceal units in forests to set up ambushes are a welcome twist, but aside from that, I’m not doing anything that I couldn’t accomplish in the Age of Empires 2 and 3 Definitive Editions that were recently released.
The Mongol faction defies convention and illustrates what Relic can achieve when it’s actually aiming to bring something new to the table, with fully mobile bases, no population buildings, and an economy mainly centered on burning down other people’s stuff to acquire money.
I went from being ambivalent about Age 4 to being ecstatic to explore out new strategies very quickly after playing the Mongols, and I’ve spent the majority of my online time since then throat singing and microing horse archers. The Rus are also a breath of fresh air, though they aren’t quite as unusual; instead of having a dense, well protected urban centre, they focus on dominating the wilds with smaller outposts.
The music and sound design are great throughout the board. Traditional instruments and songs conveying the essence of each faction begin simple and start through the years to something more spectacular. Each unit’s voice lines were recorded in its historical cultures’ native languages, even some that are no longer spoken.
In the first age, the English units, for example, speak primarily incomprehensible Old English, which gradually evolves through Middle English and eventually arrives at Shakespeare’s Early Modern English. This was a really wonderful addition, and none of it comes off as clichéd or cartoonish in any way.
On the other hand, the lack of a map editor is perhaps my biggest regret thus far. Designing my own scenarios and sharing them with my friends was always one of my favorite things to do in prior Age of Empires games, yet you can’t do that right now.
Thankfully, Relic has stated that mod tools are on their way; I just hope they don’t take too long to arrive. Age of Empires 4 plays it safe a little too often, but when it ventures beyond of its very typical comfort zone, it really shines.
Even when it loses some of its sharpness due to a small unit cap, annoying pathfinding, and somewhat lackluster graphics for a 2021 game, the large campaigns and eccentric factions like the Mongols and the Rus are key highlights. I’ve been enjoying it overall, but it does make me wonder how much room I have in my life for this age-old concept these days, given how far real-time strategy has progressed owing to other series’ advances.
Griftlands appears to be attempting to cram as many wonderful design ideas inside itself as possible without bursting. Combat including strategic deck-building? Check. A roguelike loop that you can’t get enough of? Yup.
Several tales with engaging RPG elements? Uh-huh! What’s better than a visual novel with social media links? That, as well! Even more incredible, this jumble of fantastic components squeezed into one game creates something completely original and long-lasting.
Griftlands is a roguelike deck-building game in the vein of genre classics like Slay the Spire and Monster Train, in which you earn random cards battle by battle until you lose and have to start over. The biggest way between Griftlands and similar games is that each of its campaigns tells a more substantial story – and they’re all really good.
Whether I’m playing a mercenary seeking quest, a retired soldier turned double agent working both sides of a revolt, or a blackout-drunk slacker who’s been rejected by his family, everyone – whether playable or non-playable – is looking out for number one.
They may be out for a fast buck, scheming revenge, or grabbing power, but nearly no one is completely innocent or without a hidden agenda. You have to learn quickly as a fellow grifter in the midst of this chaotic hive of ruthlessness and double-crosses, or you’ll become another mark added to the pile of corpses; it’s the perfect scenario for a conflict-heavy roguelike if I’ve ever seen one.
Smith, my favorite character, is an ignorant, carousing, two-legged garbage fire of a human with almost no redeeming characteristics… therefore I felt a strong connection to him. His story is about him trying to make amends for a life wasted, and his Disco Elysium-esque indifference to anybody or anything around him was the perfect backdrop for my cruel scheming.
I’m still having a lot of fun figuring out how to make the appropriate friends and mitigate (i.e. murder) my opponents. The tongue-in-cheek fantasy world of con artists and thugs, funny personalities, and amusing banter were all just additional reasons to try “just one more run” – even after my teeth were knocked out at higher difficulties. Something was always pushing me to finish the run, or at the very least get to the next important story development.
The storyline of each campaign is the same in principle, but the tasks you’re sent on, the characters you meet, and the random encounters you come across are all procedurally generated, so no two runs are same.
The stories aren’t something you’ll want to skip, with the exception of Sal’s campaign, which is a fairly bland revenge quest with few surprises; even on repeat playthroughs, I’ve found that small details change enough to keep it interesting, and it’s all based on the missions generated and the decisions you made.
Griftlands’ hand-drawn Saturday Morning Cartoon style and bizarre-looking anthropomorphic animals and humans who live in its world add to the already enormous amount of appeal.
The voice acting is done in a Sims-style gibberish language, which means you’ll have to read a lot of subtitles (which are improved by the tone of the voices), but the soundtrack during combat is every bit as catchy as you’d expect from a game you’re expected to spend a lot of time reading.
What makes Griftlands’ adventure approach so interesting is that victory isn’t only dependent on stabbing people in the back. Confrontation comes in two flavors: Negotiations, which are social encounters, and Battles, which are turn-based battles that require you to curate and upgrade your own deck of cards.
Each game has card-based mechanics and the goal of knocking down an opposition health bar before your own runs out, but that’s about where the similarities end. Griftlands has a different feel than most of its counterparts due to the significant difference in pace from encounter to encounter. There’s also a bit of randomness to contend with, most of which is out of your control.
You’ll be forced to make a lot of decisions with unknown consequences as you work your way through Griftlands’ verbal and physical blows: side with one faction over another, make judgement calls during random encounters, and choose to draft and upgrade cards and character perks that could have a huge impact on your Battle and Negotiation decks.
However, the decisions you’ve made about who to become friends with and who to alienate can have an impact on these outcomes. For example, if you’re in a negotiation with someone with whom you’ve spent time cultivating a positive relationship, the going will be a lot easier since they like you.
Even if someone who likes you is just in the room when you get into difficulty with someone else, they’ll defend you and grant you advantages in the encounter. Similarly, provoking the wrath of those around you will result in disastrous setbacks and make life much more difficult.
Decisions you make, big and little, have a ripple effect that can come back to hurt you or rescue you later on in any given run. Things become sticky fast and the stakes are tremendously high in the greatest conceivable way in a world where backstabbing and ruthlessness are a basic component of gameplay.
Wildermyth is a massively ambitious indie RPG that tries to mix the best of storytelling with procedural creation. It succeeds surprisingly well, thanks to excellent writing, sound strategy, and some really creative design decisions that underline the importance of legacy in adventure games.
It may not appear to be much at first glance, but anyone interested in good game stories should investigate further. The role-playing game’s ultimate aim is to combine the flexibility and creativity of having a human game master who can react to player decisions and create stories with the speed and ease of playing single-player on a computer or console.
It’s a quest that has resulted in some of the genre’s most groundbreaking developments, such as BioWare’s early development of fully fleshed-out companions or Fallout’s response to our choices.
It’s also a goal that will never be realized (barring some horrific breakthrough in AI), but it only adds to the excitement of the ambitious endeavors when they make small strides forward. Wildermyth, a story-driven tactical RPG from Worldwalker Games, is as ambitious as Pathfinder: Kingmaker or Alpha Protocol, but with considerably fewer errors to overlook. It’s one of those games where you feel like you’ve caught lightning in a bottle. In broad strokes, Wildermyth may make to be a typical role-playing game.
To begin, you must choose from a limited number of campaigns, which can be randomly generated or include a pre-written core plot. The game begins with a party of three or four randomized or customisable characters embarking on a journey of discovery.
The tutorial’s opening scene with the character who would become my spellcasting Mystic, Fern, reading a book and then having that book become a part of her life remained with me throughout the campaign and afterwards. They then choose their classes, learn how to fight, and enter the main campaign map.
After then, there’s a rhythm of discovering a new zone, taking part in a randomly generated and procedurally flexible short story that develops the characters and the world, a combat mission assaulting the foes you find, and finally consolidating your gains in a way that offers the party improvements.
After then, it’s back to a plot task through the chapter’s finale. This campaign format is a great, if sometimes repetitive, foundation for a game – and repetition is undoubtedly Wildermyth’s biggest flaw. However, numerous highly creative and well-crafted components of the overall design alleviate this flaw.
The first is that the writing is, well, exceptional. Each segment of the story is delivered in a short comic book-style sequence, which Wildermyth cleverly employs to grant the illusion of movement. Wildermyth contains a title screen for each short story that includes the author’s name, in a move that reminded me of how Metal Gear Solid 5 credits the designer at the way of each level.
These vignettes can range from the rather generic for setting up a fight – a character falls down a hole, and the other party members must decide how to save her – to the intensely mythic, such as a mysterious giant shape passing through the night, granting the party a reputation bonus simply for being able to tell the story of what happened in bars and at festivals for the rest of their lives.
More importantly, the writing is adaptable. Each member of your party has three distinct personality attributes, such as being a dreamer, a weirdo, having potential, or bearing a great deal of shame.
These personality traits are employed in stories to ensure that characters react appropriately to events, and some stories appear to be set up to only appear when characters with specified personality traits are present.
Because certain characteristics are there, even if you witness the same stories numerous times, they might feel different depending on which characters are featured.
Character alterations are another amusing consequence that occurs as campaigns continue. Meeting capricious wanderers has based characters to acquire wings, transform into diamonds due to avarice, or converse with a fire spirit and have their body turn to flame.
Character interactions are also crucial — friendship is the default, but Wildermyth can throw in some familial relationships, and romantic entanglements or rivalries can arise from your choices or chance occurrences, both of which offer some interesting storytelling spice beyond the standard traits.
But the spice isn’t just in the plot. Rivalries cause pairs of characters to inflict more critical hits (called Stunts in Wildermyth’s system) while they compete in battle, while romances cause characters to do extra damage after their lover is hit.
Transformations offer interesting side effects, such as changing the stats of party members and granting them new abilities, such as my flame-handed Mystic’s ability to unleash streams of fire from her hands at will.
The responsiveness of Wildermyth to what happens in its campaigns is also one of the characteristics that binds the entire game together. Some of this is artistic; Wildermyth’s character models are based on a changeable paper doll system, similar to a less grimdark Darkest Dungeon, and each face can age, become magically corrupted, or scarred if characters are beaten in combat.
Given the seeming simplicity of the painting style, each body may be altered for height, size, gender and presentation, hair, face, and colors in a surprisingly effective manner. And, even on the combat screen, the cartoonishly exaggerated weapons you find along your quest, like as magical swords or spiked shoulderpads, tend to pop out fairly nicely.
It takes a little getting used to (and tilting paper dolls’ heads to gaze up never quite works), but it’s a creative way for an indie game to give the impression of having the means to do whatever you want with your party members.
Wildermyth’s magic is that it loves stories so much that it constructs its entire structure around its characters becoming legends, from graphical style to writing to combat to campaign structure.
The Legacy method then solidifies those concepts by repurposing those legendary characters as stories, integrating design and storytelling together throughout. Wildermyth has the appearance of being charmingly ramshackle, but it’s actually rather flexible and tight behind the hood, making for a truly unique experience.