This latest instalment of my monthly series on the games I’ve played has four entries. It kicks off with Strange Brigade and Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, two very different games which are united by their unmistakable Britishness, sense of humour, and love of alliteration. Next up I have a few words about the fairly obscure action RPG Of Orcs and Men, made across the Channel in France. If you’ve enjoyed the fantasy stealth games in the Styx series, then you may enjoy the game that first introduced that gregarious goblin.
Finally for July, I revisited an indie masterpiece which has just been given a free and impressive overhaul. Tactics classic Into the Breach has been picked up by Netflix, who are making it available to their subscribers. To celebrate, Subset Games have upgraded all versions of the game to the even more excellent Advanced Edition. This gratis update adds a ton of new features, and makes one of the best indie games ever somehow even more perfect.
Strange Brigade (2018)
Developed and published by Rebellion
Sniper Elite 5 has made waves since it came out in May, and I gave it a glowing review in my coverage for Entertainium. It’s inspired me to play more games developed by local heroes Rebellion, which has brought me to the co-op oriented third-person shooter Strange Brigade. To put it crudely, the game is a retooling of the Nazi Zombie Army games, which themselves are a re-tooling of Sniper Elite. Strange Brigade is more than a mere co-op hand-me-down, though. Built on Rebellion’s own in-house Asura engine, it’s a good-looking and humorous romp, generously stacked with stages, characters, gear, and loot.
Set in the 1930s, the game focuses on the titular Strange Brigade, a group of oddball adventurers in the employ of the British Empire (they do have positive qualities, too). They are sent to Egypt, where some damned fool amateur archaeologist has unleashed Seteki, an ancient evil bent on world domination. The solution to this, obviously, is mowing down undead wraiths by the dozen, while solving the occasional puzzle - which also mostly involves shooting things. There’s little real depth to Strange Brigade, but it’s always entertaining to drop into for a mission or two. As is usual with Rebellion’s games, the best way to get this is in a deep sale, so you can snap up its DLC at a reasonable price.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair (2019)
Developed by Playtonic, published by Team17
Playtonic was set up by veterans of British developer Rare, famous for their classic ‘90s platformers and odd atmosphere of corporate secrecy. Both of the Yooka-Laylee games are spiritual successors to Rare’s beloved work; the 2017 original riffed on Banjo-Kazooie (1998), while the slick sequel uses Donkey Kong Country (1994) as its template. The soundtrack is often wonderful, and while that is mostly thanks to newcomers Matt Griffin and Daniel Murdock, Rare veterans David Wise and Grant Kirkhope also contributed a few tracks.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is an all-round lovely tribute to the bright, humorous atmosphere of the glory days of ‘90s platformers. While there is no voice acting, the script and characters are charming - chameleon Yooka and bat Laylee make for a fun duo. The level design is of a consistently high standard, and there’s a lot of it - each stage has a very different alternate version created by changes to the overworld. For example, the late-game level “Turbine Trouble” has a “tidal” variant, which is accessible when the portal to it is submerged by seawater. Like most platformers, The Impossible Lair can be a little frustrating at times, and the climactic level almost lives up to the title, but this game is irresistible.
Of Orcs and Men (2012)
Developed by Cyanide Studio and Spiders, published by Focus Home Interactive
Back in March, I thoroughly enjoyed Styx: Master of Shadows (2014), the fantasy stealth game made by French team Cyanide Studio. That game, and its 2017 follow-up, are in fact prequels to Of Orcs and Men, a fairly obscure action-RPG from 2012. In this game, talkative mercenary goblin Styx is partnered up with the hulking and vengeful orc Arkail. Their mission, which they are both quite keen to accept, is to hunt down and kill the head of the oppressive Empire of Men. Styx is in it for the money, but Arkail is politically committed - he wants to destroy the regime that is brutalising and enslaving his people. While Cyanide went on to make the Styx solo games, much of the work here was done by another French outfit, Spiders - since then, both companies have been acquired by publisher Nacon.
Now, Of Orcs and Men has clear limitations and it’s obvious that the budget for the project was quite limited. The game is highly linear in design, fairly basic in gameplay, and has only acceptable graphics for a game from 2012. In short, this is nothing like as sophisticated as other RPGs of the time like Dragon’s Dogma or Kingdoms of Amalur. Like Master of Shadows, though, it has some special qualities. The world, characters, and writing are highly engaging in the way that they iterate on some familiar fantasy tropes. It’s also refreshing, sometimes, to play an RPG with ready-made characters which is easy to pick up and play, and which doesn’t take dozens of hours to finish.
Into the Breach: Advanced Edition (2018/2022)
Developed and published by Subset Games
It turns out that even perfection can be improved upon. The incredible turn-based tactics game Into the Breach came out in 2018, and has since been seen as one of the best indie games ever made. Developed by the two-man team of Justin Ma and Matthew Davis, it’s a series of bite-size but incredibly engaging battles between mechs and aliens on miniature square combat zones. To accompany a re-release made available via Netflix, in July Subset Games provided a free update to the new Advanced Edition and somehow, they have made a perfect game even better. Notably, Gamespot amended their review score accordingly, from a lowly 9 to a correct 10.
The new update is a perfect reason to return to the pixel art battlefields of Into the Breach. It adds several new mech squads and pilots, a number of devilish new vek enemies, further mission types, and an “unfair” difficulty for the real pros and/or masochists. Happily, these features can be toggled individually for a fairly bespoke vek-smashing experience. Minus the higher difficulty, I’ve turned it all on and have been blown away all over again by how deceptively simple, elegant, and addictive Into the Breach still is. Each battle takes just a few minutes, but each one tells its own story of miniature tragedies and triumphs. The Advanced Edition adds new twists and turns to those little narratives, and why are you reading this instead of playing it?
So ends another instalment. In August, if I can tear myself away from Into the Breach, I’ll be moving on to some other games - possibly including one or two brand new ones - and will report back at the end of the month.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.