In the first entry in a monthly series, I share some quick reflections on five games I played in October 2021, both new and old. In this edition: Eastward, Inscryption, REKKR: Sunken Land, the demo of Supplice, and the FPS classic Return to Castle Wolfenstein.
Developed by Pixpil, published by Chucklefish
Top-down pixel art adventure Eastward was easily one of the most hyped indie releases of September this year. Pixpil is a new, small studio based in Shanghai who display a tremendous skill for pixel art - their first game is one of the most remarkable showcases for that style, perhaps ever. I had the chance to belatedly review the game for Entertainium, and found myself mostly agreeing with the wave of very positive takes. Potential players should be cautioned, though, that an experience that lovingly riffs on early Zelda entries and Earthbound is bulked out by a hugely talky script which can eat up something like 60% of your time with the game.
While this factor will prevent numerous players from reaching the end of their Eastward journey, the game will definitely attract a lot of loving fans. Part of that is to do with the game’s exceptional visuals and sound. One aspect I may not have fully communicated in my review is how superb the music is; the soundtrack comprises over two hours of varied and inspired contributions by Joel Corelitz, who will next be heard in Halo Infinite in December.
Developed by Daniel Mullins Games, published by Devolver Digital
Canadian developer Daniel Mullins built a cult reputation with his games Pony Island (2016) and The Hex (2018), which provided twisting, mutating meta experiences. Published by Devolver Digital, Inscryption is Mullins’ shot at the big time and it is very likely to succeed in some style. While nominally a deck-builder with horror and escape room puzzle elements, this is an genuinely extraordinary and endlessly surprising game, one which I had the pleasure to play early and cover for Entertainium. Reading the early reviews has been fascinating, because like me, the various writers have taken great pains to avoid spoiling the game’s numerous rug-pulls and frankly jaw-dropping surprises. Then again, they may not have seen it all - despite my many hours with the game, I know I haven’t.
Inscryption isn’t all about oddball weirdness and shooting for cult appeal, though; the game is built on an extremely solid gameplay foundation driven by card play which remains intriguing over the course of what is a fairly lengthy game. I’m not alone in thinking this is my game of the year so far, by a large margin. If deck-builders or mysterious meta-games appeal to you at all, you should definitely play its demo at the very least.
REKKR: Sunken Land (2021)
Developed and published by Mockingbird Softworks
Games built on the GZDoom port of the Doom engine are an increasingly major part of the recent retro FPS or “boomer shooter” renaissance. Developed by Mockingbird Softworks - mostly a one-person operation - REKKR was originally released for free in 2018 and was instantly recognised as one of the most impressive Doom engine projects ever made, especially among those with “vanilla” compatibility. Three years on, REKKR has just been released in an enhanced and expanded commercial edition via Steam with the Sunken Land subtitle.
Set in a distinctive faux-viking world at war with the undead, REKKR: Sunken Land is aptly described as a shooter that escaped from 1995. It has 32 levels (plus four secret ones) spread across four episodes, the last of which is exclusive to the new version. With all-new graphics, enemies, weapons and an atmospheric score, it’s an impressive achievement. Ammo and health is arguably a bit too tight, so leaning on quicksaves is advised. While some might find the game to be a little too antiquated in its look and design philosophy, it’s a must-buy for fans of classic Doom and the developer richly deserves the support.
Supplice (2022) demo
Developed by Mekworx, published by Hyperstrange
Continuing on with the theme of Doom engine games, there is Supplice - which incidentally takes its odd name from the French for “torment”. Developed by a group of modding and mapping veterans from the tirelessly productive Doom community, Supplice is due for release in 2022 but has a generous two-level demo available now. The game is published by Hyperstrange, who have a number of other retro FPS games on their books. Established fans of classic Doom will feel almost immediately at home, but this game has a much more modern sensibility than something like REKKR; for one thing, you can look up and down (!).
While the two maps on offer are both sprawling and excellent, I do have navigational concerns at this point - it’s very easy to get lost which could be a problem if the game is heavily focused on environments of this scale. That aside, Supplice is extremely promising, with satisfying guns, varied enemies, and superb texture and sprite work. While the game is highly likely to be essential for retro FPS fans, the test of true greatness will be if developers Mekworx can find ways to surprise the jaded boomer shooter veteran in an increasingly crowded market.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001) with the RealRTCW mod
Developed by Gray Matter Interactive, published by Activision
I have always loved Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Prior to its release in November 2001, I read and re-read the sprawling and rapturous review in PC Gamer when paper magazines were a thing anyone actually read (it got 94%, I think?). When I bought the game at full price on release, it did that rare thing and actually lived up to my towering expectations. For the last two decades, I have replayed the game every year or two, and still regard it as one of the best and most underrated first-person shooters ever made and certainly of its era. Sadly, it was somewhat overshadowed then by Medal of Honour: Allied Assault, released a few months later but clearly the far inferior game.
This time around, I’ve revisited Return to Castle Wolfenstein a bit differently, by using the very impressive RealRTCW mod, which at the time of writing is on version 3.3. This is a fairly comprehensive but respectful overhaul, which upscales the textures, replaces most of the weapon models, improves sound effects, and makes various other subtle but worthwhile changes. One recent update buffed the flamethrower, which was previously annoyingly underpowered. Some may find the numerous added weapons to be a bit of an intrusive addition, but they are actually quite cleverly integrated and they quickly grew on me. Ultimately, RealRTCW takes a brilliant game and makes it just that little bit better.
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.