There’s not much need for preamble this month - I had a busy June, but still managed to play quite a few games. They were mostly on the older side; in fact the only 2022 release I played during June was a demo, and I rarely play those.
I revisited two classics from my youth which still stand up remarkably well, in the form of gloomy tactics game Myth: The Fallen Lords (1997) and the forgotten Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb (2003). I continued my increasingly familiar ramble through the Halo series with the fairly tiresome spinoff Halo 3: ODST (2009), and that demo I mentioned was for the upcoming Agent 64: Spies Never Die. The real standout for me, though, was definitely Dragon’s Dogma. Inspired by the long-awaited announcement of a sequel, I finally picked up Hideaki Itsuno’s cult favourite action RPG and have been revelling in its idiosyncratic charms.
Myth: The Fallen Lords (1997)
Developed by Bungie, published by Bungie (NA) and Eidos Interactive (Europe)
Before they came up with Halo and spent a long spell under the wing of Microsoft, Bungie made some excellent games which are much less well known. One of them, made by the very short-lived California branch Bungie West, was the 3D sci-fi brawler Oni (2001). Another one was Myth: The Fallen Lords, which I’ve revisited for the first time in many years. On release, Myth was startlingly unique. It was referred to at the time as a strategy title, but really it was part of the newly emerging real-time tactics genre. Set in a bleak fantasy world, the game has no base building or resource management at all. Instead, it’s about managing a small group of fragile units and battling to overcome terrifying odds.
The gameplay was quite unique in 1997 and in some ways, still feels fresh 25 years later. The need to fight efficiently and to preserve units creates a tension that few strategy or tactics games have ever matched. There’s a thrilling unpredictability to every engagement and each hard-won victory is hugely satisfying. The game’s writing and atmosphere are brilliant, too. It’s often said that Glen Cook’s Black Company series of dark fantasy novels were a key influence on Bungie. The player gets the sense that their missions are the last, desperately vulnerable spark of hope to save a world that is almost definitely doomed. Mission objectives can be a bit vague, and the control system is quite dated, but Myth is still a fantastic game. I only wish developers still made things like this.
Agent 64: Spies Never Die [Demo] (2022)
Developed and published by Replicant D6
Let’s not beat around the bush - Agent 64 is an extremely obvious clone of GoldenEye 007 (1997). And why not? Rare’s licensed James Bond game was a milestone in making first-person shooters workable on consoles, paving the way for Halo and hundreds of others. Its single-player and multiplayer alike have a cult reputation that has persisted for 25 years and with good reason. I’m not much of a demo player, and didn’t play a huge amount of GoldenEye back in the glory days, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to explore this recreation for half an hour.
Replicant D6 have done an almost eerily impressive job at recreating the feel of GoldenEye 007. The strange, glassy movement and aiming is present and correct, as is the floaty behaviour of the gun-toting foes. The demo provides just one level, so it’s not much to go on, but I hope the developers can find ways to provide plenty of variety in settings and objectives as that will help balance the simplicity of the gameplay. That is, of course, if they don’t get litigated to pieces in the meantime…
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen (2012 / 2016)
Developed and published by Capcom
Dragon’s Dogma II had seemed like an inevitability for some time, because the name had come up in high-profile leaks from both Capcom and Nvidia. Still, the formal announcement in June was music to the ears of the smallish but vocal group who had been clamouring for a sequel for a decade. It was also the little push I’d needed to actually play the 2016 PC port of the original, Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen, which I’d picked up in a Capcom bundle a couple of years ago. Almost immediately, it became clear why this game has built up a cult reputation. Masterminded by Hideaki Itsuno, it’s a strange, ambitious, and frequently surprising Japanese take on a Western action RPG.
There’s nothing particularly outstanding about the game’s setting, the vaguely Tolkienesque Duchy of Gransys, or its menagerie of unruly goblins, bandits, and undead. Where Dragon’s Dogma flies its freak flag high is in its mechanics. It has an unusual system of classes, or “vocations”, which players can switch between quite easily. Tired of being a mage? Become a mystic knight instead, and trade your staff for a mace while still retaining the ability to sling spells. These vocations play radically differently and each has their own slew of fun abilities. More famously, DD employs a system of “pawns”. These are AI-controlled companions which are recruited via a magical rift. The ones you recruit were made by other players - when they’ve helped you complete a quest, you can send them back to their creators with a kind note and a thoughtful gift, like a mushroom or a small fish (?).
I’m not alone in exploring Gransys at the moment. As Gamespot recently noted, the announcement of Dragon’s Dogma II has led to a surge of players doing the same. Hopefully this bodes well for the success of the sequel. In the meantime, I have a lot more vocations to try, while my pawns jump into a fountain and cry “master, I’m wet through!”. Then there’s the merchant who always says, “they’re masterworks all, you can’t go wrong…” He’s right, you know.
Halo 3: ODST (2009)
Developed by Bungie, published by Microsoft Game Studios
Since I picked up the Master Chief Collection, I’ve been gradually working my way through the Halo games, including those which had never previously been available on PC. I even caught up with the curious, dumbed-down strategy instalment Halo Wars back in January. Halo 3: ODST was one of the last games to be made by Bungie, before Microsoft’s own 343 Studios took over the series. It’s an odd prospect; originally intended as a mere expansion for Halo 3, it became a full game in its own right. And while it’s nominally a spin-off of Halo 3, it actually takes place during the events of Halo 2. Confused yet?
Honestly, five games in and I’m becoming increasingly tired of the Halo series. It feels as if Bungie were being forced to milk the franchise as hard as possible and ODST adds very little that is new. The game is short and its plot feels like an inconsequential sideline to the already dizzyingly complicated Halo mythos. The setting in the besieged Earth city of New Mombasa does little to alleviate the humdrum boredom of fighting the same enemies as usual, with the same familiar arsenal of guns and vehicles. ODST just diligently ticks off the usual checklist - here’s the tank bit. Here’s the bit with the fixed gun emplacement. Here’s the repetitious corridor section. In 2009, when demand for Halo was arguably at its peak, this was good enough but that’s no longer the case today. Maybe when I get around to them, Halo: Reach or Halo 4 will reignite my interest but I won’t be holding my breath.
Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb (2003)
Developed by The Collective, published by LucasArts
Digital Foundry is a favourite YouTube channel of mine, and one recurring series of theirs is “DF Retro”, in which they revisit old games on their original hardware. Recently, they played another old favourite of mine which I hadn’t played for years - Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb. Licensed games are normally an extremely risky proposition, and that was maybe even more true back in 2003, but The Collective did a superb job on this one. The Emperor’s Tomb captures the Indy feel better than any other game, and is also better than the Tomb Raider games from that era.
It’s a genuine rip-roaring adventure, which takes Indy to British Ceylon, Prague, Istanbul, Hong Kong, the legendary Mount Penglai. Notably, the game has a great brawling-oriented fighting system with a small but elegant moveset. Crucially, Indy can grab Nazis and throw them, screaming, off cliffs which never gets old. A lot of what is good about The Emperor’s Tomb is rooted in the experience that The Collective had with making another licensed game which I’m told is surprisingly good, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer game published by EA in 2002.
That’ll do it for June. At the end of July, the next instalment will include some discussion of the early access boomer shooter Project Warlock II and who knows what else. In the meantime, please do check out the writing by myself and colleagues at Entertainium, and if you like what I do please consider supporting via Patreon.
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.