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Slowbeef's Top Five Games Maybe You Haven’t Heard of in 2021

Slowbeef's Top Five Games Maybe You Haven’t Heard of in 2021

Slowbeef is one of the first Let’s Players, and currently streams and creates content on Twitch, YouTube, and Twitter.

Hi everyone, thanks for coming to my piece, I appreciate you. Listen, I don’t know about you, but I like video games. Actually, I really like the ones off the beaten path, as it were. Stuff that maybe you want to lean around Lady Dimitrescu’s 9’6” frame to take a peek at. Or squeeze by the Narcacuga, rub your eyes and go, “Hey, me, what’s that game off in the distance that I might not have played? Also how did the writer remember Lady Dimitrescu’s height without reference and why is he freely admitting that on GiantBomb?”

Look, shit happens, it was a weird year for all of us, but grab a chair and I’ll tell you about five games that my schedule allowed me to pla- I mean! Games that deserve a good look. I do promise that all of them are either:

  • Better than The Game Awards’ Game of the Year 2021 “It Takes Two” or at least...
  • Contain one less drawn out scene where your maim and torture a sentient toy who pleads for her life than The Game Awards’ Game of the Year 2021 “It Takes Two” or at least...
  • Seriously, what tone was “It Takes Two” going for there? Like is this a Pixar-kind of “getting back together story” or-

Anyway.

Number Five: SPOOKWARE

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My elevator pitch: WarioWare but Horror-Themed.

Do I even need to write anymore than “WarioWare but Horror-Themed?” I mean, it sold me when I heard about it described that way.

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Unlike WarioWare, its titular inspiration, Spookware puts you in charge of three skeleton pals named Lefti, Midi and Righti, who play fast-paced microgames under the pretenses of watching spooky VHS tapes, going to school, or solving a murder depending on what stage you’re on. For those of you unfamiliar with the microgame concept, it works thusly:

  1. You’re dropped on a screen, and given a brief one-sentence objective (Like “DON’T LET THEM IN”)
  2. You have five seconds (or so) to get your bearings, figure out the game and controls, then win. (Like “Oh zombies are climbing a wall... oh I have the shoot them before they reach the top!”)
  3. Win, and you’re suddenly thrust back into step one, but a different game. Lose and the same thing happens, but you lose a life. It’s fast-paced “get your bearings and make due” action. The games speedup as the level goes on, there’s a longer boss level, you get the idea. You’ll pick up quickly how to pilot these skeletons.
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There’s connective tissue here, too (look, a theme-appropriate metaphor! Writing is easy): Our skelly protagonists have an overworld to traverse, NPCs to converse with, and subquests which themselves double as minigames. Each chapter has a different goal and a control scheme/theme; i.e. a band practice level centers around rhythm games, a murder mystery requires mouse movement instead of the keyboard/gamepad, that kind of thing.

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This concept is pretty bare-bones (nice) to grasp, so some downsides or things you may not realize: I like WarioWare’s “drop you in and just get to the gaming” system. Look, I’m a busy guy with games to play, and business calls to make. “Get me the numbers on that!” you might hear me yell on a Zoom conference call to make it look like I was paying attention. That’s relatable! My point is, I just want to get to the gaming.

Spookware’s first level is almost exactly that: you get a frame story where the three skelebros discuss watching TV briefly, then boom, microgames. But subsequent levels have you talking to aforementioned NPCs, wandering around, searching for story progression. It’s certainly not hard, but it feels like padding at times. (WarioWare itself is a pretty short experience, generally.)

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I’m not saying this is a mistake, mind, it’s just something I wish I’d known going in - the change of pace and longer cutscenes felt like a letdown, ‘til I understood Spookware’s vibe. It’s still WarioWare and fast-paced microgames, but there are much longer breathers, and said levels are actually pretty funny if you take the time to explore the environment and read the dialogue. It’s really charming and “horror” themed or not, it doesn’t take itself very seriously.

If I had to complain more, the rhythm game section also outlasts its welcome, but things get back on track soon after. I wish I had another theme appropriate metaphor to close this out with. Bones? Cranium...? Insert a cartilage I don’t know, writing is too hard.

Next!

Number Four: CHESSPLOSION

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Elevator Pitch: It’s Chess Plus Bomberman

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Once upon a time, there was a game designer - let’s call him Dave Steaky - and he got the opportunity to work on fighting game balance. He wrote a lot of articles about fighting games that were really good reads, but when his game came out, the fighting game community was actually not very impressed. “It’s a lot of rock-paper-scissors” was one complaint, etc.

Now that’s fine; folks disagree on design decisions all the time. What turned me off personally was when Steaky wrote an article about being at a dinner with other game developers when he announced to the table, “I was disappointed by Portal 2” and they all agreed with him. Stories like this bug me because they’re weird flex-by-proxies where the person flexes by telling you about their flex. But the hubris hit overdrive when Steaky announced his new game:

Chess 2.

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Yeah, he was going to make a sequel to a game that is actually millennium old. Also, released on the Ouya just in case. Chess, like Tetris, is a self-contained sort of game where you can’t really add much, because the basics are already there. I mean en passant was a good addition to chess, but saying “I am going to make a full-on sequel or total rebalance of the world’s most well-known strategy game” is writing a check that no one can cash. (Please forgive the very naked attempt to look smart by mentioning en passant.)

And have you played Chess 2? Of course you haven’t! It’s ridiculous! At least Tetris was only a few years old when they tried Tetris 2, aka “Dr. Mario But We Still Have The Tetris License So Ka-Ching.” But come on. Chess 2? They should’ve titled it “Chess 2: Jerk’s Gambit.”

Then out of the blue, in 2021, this other designer named CT Matthews gets a eureka moment and decides on not a sequel to chess, but a spinoff. What did the frame story with Dave Steaky have to do with this? Not a lot, I just couldn’t pass on the chance to rip on him. Let’s call it a capture en passant. Hell yeah.

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Chessplosion is one of those rare concepts that’s just really simple but brilliant when you hear it. Chess plus Bomberman?! Imagine me spitting out my coffee, thrashing my head cartoonishly, and ending on a wide-eyed “WHAT!!!” How did it take until 2021 to think up marrying Chess and Bomberman?!

It’s fast-paced, real-time action where you try to time and chain explosions to catch opponents and the bombs are shaped like chess pieces and explode the way the pieces capture! And the complicated stuff has been removed, so don’t worry if you don’t know how to castle or what en passant is. ... ... ... It’s French for “in passing” and I totally know of its existence, by the by.

I first played the multiplayer version with streamer and pal, TieTuesday, and in each ten round session (they’re configurable), my brain lived in multiple places:

  • Highly cerebral play where internally I’ll say “ok I’ll set a bishop piece here, a knight diagonally from it to combo, and maybe a king there” and then I blew myself up because I completely goofed that, but it seemed smart at the time.
  • My internally yelling at myself “JUST HIT A AS FAST AS POSSIBLE AND TRY AND THROW PIECES. AM I SAFE ON THAT SQUARE? WHO KNOWS, JUST MASH THE BUTTONS YOU BIG APE” and I’d somehow win and he’d go “wow, good play” and I had to pretend like I planned it the whole time.
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There are multiple game modes in Chessplosion like Arcade Single Player where you take on drone enemies and use your pieces to blow them up, using reflexes and quick thinking. There’s Puzzle Mode, which is about what it sounds like. And there’s aforementioned multiplayer with modes where you share a board and lay pieces like Bomberman, or “Tennis” where you toss pieces over a “net”. You typically get 2 HP per round so you can afford one screwup and I ended up expending that on my own chess bombs more times than I’d like to admit.

The pieces also have different “fuses” (times between placement and explosion) and explosion types. Queens, for example, explode in 8 directions as you’d expect, but do so like projectiles, meaning once they set off, you have time to react and get out of the way. Rooks and bishops explode like “beams” (think Bomberman) meaning you have to get out of the way before they go off, or take a hit. Kings’ explosions stay on screen longer than others, so each piece has its own pro/con set.

The chessboards also change from a standard 8x8 to ones with holes in them or certain types of movement. Despite the explosions and chaos, the music is sublimely chill, and again - like Tetris - the concept is really simple but has legs enough to stay fun after awhile.

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It’s just a big hoot. It’s completely great to screw around with a pal and switch between trying to do high-level combinations and movements around a chessboard, feeling like a genius-level supercomputer, watching your opponent walk into step three of a chain reaction you set up like you’re Cyber-Kasparov or something. Then next round, you just end up boxing yourself in with your own King bomb and reach over for the dunce cap you’ve constructed three games ago.

Number Three: Record of Lodoss War - Deedlit in Wonder Labryinth

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Elevator Pitch: Metroidvania with Beautiful Animation and Ikaruga Mechanics

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Ok, I’ll admit that pitch got away a bit at the end, so hear me out. Maybe like me, “Lodoss War” or the records thereof don’t mean a whole lot to you. In fact my familiarity was seeing a VHS tape of “Record of Lodoss War” at Blockbuster Video in the “Japanimation” section back in the days when people unironically mispronounced “anime.”

Note, too, I didn’t say I watched Record of Lodoss War. I saw the box. So I know - or knew - nothing about the source material and played this game on recommendation. Let’s get it out of the way. You can do that. You’ll miss some plot beats and references, but honestly, the game is so fun that it’s worth piecing together or maybe even watching the source material for context.

So, going off memory and... well, Wikipedia, here’s the deal with Lodoss War. These guys in Japan were playing pen and paper RPGs, notably using the AD&D system and started publishing their replays - transcripts of their games. Anyhow, they were popular enough that the DM, Ryo Mizuno started to write fantasy novels based on them, and the nerd world he created. One thing led to another, TSR - who owns D&D - wasn’t willing to let them officially license it, so they made it distinct enough to create Lodoss War.

Long story short, it spawned its own anime, games and became a franchise of its own. One of the novel editors approached Playism to make a game in 2021, and here it is!

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I mentioned this being a mashup of a Metroidvania - notably, it’s very Symphony of the Night looking (Deedlit and Alucard rock a mean cape) - and Ikaruga. If you’re not familiar, I won’t give you a detailed history of everything I name in this, but Ikaruga is a really cool old shmup by Treasure with a “polarity” mechanic that this game has too. You can switch colors - from red to blue, in this one - and you’re able to absorb attacks of the same color, and get hurt by attacks of the opposite.

Pretty simple right? Well.

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Don’t worry, you get the hang of it pretty quick. You also get a neat complement of melee weapons a la Symphony and a bow you can aim and use to reflect arrows. Coupled with magic and the polarity system and you’ve got a really neat ‘vania in “Record of Lodoss War - Deedlit in Wonder Labryinth” (which I will admit, is such a long title, I copy-pasted it here instead of typing out or using the ridiculous initialism RoLWDiWL, or “roll-dill”)

Number Two: TOGETHER BNB

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Elevator Pitch: A completely inept dating sim that includes the entire feature set of Unreal Engine 4 for no good reason.

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Let’s set the scene.

You’re on Steam, or Twitter, or something, and you run into this game. “Oh this looks like one of those weird half-porno games with like Barbie Doll/Poser models - and for whatever reason, you watch the trailer. And it’s almost exactly what you expect, but in first-person 3D; a seemingly more-competent-than-it-should-be-but-not-enough first person dating sim with three girls and one guy (Mark), talking to you, relaxing in a pool, drinking wine, wearing skimpy clothing. Like Doom, but a dating sim.

Then you machine gun the kitchen.

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That’s kinda the point where you realize there’s something unintentionally special here.

Together BnB seems like a couple of students in game design school had to make a final project and went with a really horny one. But everything is in here. There is a basketball mini-game. You don’t play as anyone, you just get to throw the ball into a hoop. It’s not good, but it’s utilizing the physics engine and ... I mean they borrowed it from somewhere to be sure, but I mean, it’s ... competent?

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There is hunting. There are wolves outside the BnB. And deer. You can buy a hunting rifle or an assault rifle and just go to town. You can see them horrifically ragdoll down the mountain. You can take their pelts and sell them for money. Why is anyone buying all these wolf pelts?

There is driving. You can get in a car and explore the weirdly huge landscape. There are grocery stores and they are STOCKED with food - like 4 kinds of steak, 8 different wines. The gift shop has wall to wall items you can pick up and check out like a real store which it makes it less convenient than a video game shop but... it’s there! The gun store is amazing and staffed by Logan who is at least dressed appropriately.

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There are other houses. There are files with clues to your brother’s whereabouts. There is intrigue.

There is an unfinished plot for some reason.

See, the Horny Bed and Breakfast belonged to your brother and one of the tenants called you to let you know he has gone missing. So begins your very odd adventure where you are trying to find your missing brother... but also woo the tenants of the Bed and Breakfast... but also drive to the grocery store in a sports car to buy steak to give as gifts to... get money to... play basketball?

It’s all very bizarre and confusing and the machine learned translation most certainly doesn’t help. But I want to tell you why I included it in this list.

So ok, sure, you can play the game as intended. There’s a wine-tasting event with the tenants and they typically get drunk and you have to carry them back to their room (this description, fortunately, is about as creepy as that gets). But what if... you decided to put Mark on top of the car instead? And drove him to the grocery store? Can you fit the car in? What if you’re holding him and a basketball? And a gun?

How does the car handle in the water? Shockingly: great!

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This is where things go awry.

Together BnB has a fully fledged physics engine it did not need, but it also wasn’t really done very well so what happened in my case: the tenants apparently weigh quite a lot and throwing them on the car means the car just goes FLYING. And you spend more time than you’d think trying to get a car into the rooftop pool.

The basketball can be brought outside the court and it stays in front of you but you can get it caught on stuff... and it rockets back to you once it gets a clear path like one of those killer flying drill spheres from Phantasm. Or you get it really stuck, you forget about it and ten minutes later, it rockets across the map and back to you. You can’t escape Basketball and it was foolish to try, mortal.

Then you start to realize, wait a second.

This is accidentally a sandbox game.

This is everything Goat Simulator tried to artificially emulate.

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“Can I put Mark in a kitchen cabinet?” You can and the universe will hate you and his ragdoll body will destroy the kitchen and it’s scary. Then one of the tenants is watching a movie and asking you for “toilet papers” and it’s funny again without exploiting the engine of plenty the devs created by checking every fucking box in Unreal. You can machine gun all the stuff around, and like 10% of it show damage.

What happens if you bring the basketball on the wine tasting date? What happens if you drive with it? What if you bring it to the deer that you can hunt and sell the pelts of? Wait, can you bring the wine glass out during the date? What can you do with the shopkeepers?

The possibilities are mind-boggling. This is a joke entry but I do have to admit, you can do worse than screw around for an hour in a game that gave you car physics, gun combat, basketball and hot girls (and Mark). It’s a really weird game and it’s toeing the line of getting skeevy, but it’s...

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Nah okay, it’s trash but it’s sort of hilarious.

Number One: WORLD OF HORROR

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My elevator pitch: RPG Roguelike with Junji Ito horror manga as inspiration, styled like an old Macintosh Game.

...That is maybe not my most concise pitch

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What I like about “top games of [this year]” lists is some jokester always puts up one that wasn’t released that year, and they have some excuse for why that works out or whatever, but in my case, this is just meta set-dressing. World of Horror is amazing and you should really be playing it. It’s in early access but the dev took a leave for 2020-2021 and re-appeared at the end of the year for a big update, so it gets to be in my list!

I really adore World of Horror.

The premise is that there is an “old god”, some eldritch being coming to Shiokawa, Japan in 1984 and only you can stop it. To learn more, you have to go on five investigations (randomly chosen from a larger pool), and manage stats to survive or pass events, combat otherworldly creatures, investigate different locales, and ultimately, solve the five mysteries for a final battle atop the Shiokawa light house.

This is a one-dev act; the game is a love letter to Junji Ito from a dentist who goes by Panstasz, and he drew everything in MSPaint, which is remarkable. There is a lot of care involved - it’s not a card game, but aspects of it are driven by “cards” which configure and tweak each playthrough.

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Almost everything is considered a “card’ and can be randomized so each playthrough has a lot of on-the-fly challenges. Each potential eldritch being is a card that causes a playthrough-specific impediment (the spider god prevents you from running from combat for that game, for example). After each of the game’s five chapters, the old god will deal a new town curse which might make locations more dangerous, or prevent you from healing between stages.

Each character you can choose has different abilities but you might also get a backstory card that modifies it (the reporter has more Perception and starts with a camera - but if he gets the Scars backstory, he has lower max health and reason, but higher defense).

Note too - you can pick cards manually if you want to try specific playthroughs or are still learning the game - I like to leave it up to chance, just because that’s how we through caution to the wind when you’re 40, have kids, and your wife won’t let you buy a motorcycle, what kind of mid-life crisis am I even allowed to have in this stupid world- sorry, anyway. Yeah, I like the cards to be random like a badass.

The game has a Doom meter which serves as time - it goes from 0-100% which is instant game over, and almost everything costs doom but you can lower it with certain events. You also have to manage your own characters’ health and “reason” (mental health/sanity), but Doom keeps it tense so you can’t spend your limited time resting to full health.

There are so many little events (again, cards) that occur mid-investigation that as many hours as I’ve spent with it, I feel like I hit a new monster or new event every time. Some events can only be completed with items from other events and there’s a lot of secrets and depth to find here - it’s not just one off “collect $200” community card stuff.

And the soundtrack! It’s done by ArcOfDream who did the soundtrack for Monolith (also a great game) and it’s amazing. Look, I never listen to inline audio in articles like this. I know. But check it out, and tell me that’s not some good tunes.

And it’s moddable! There’s a community and they add cards for new scenarios and-!

And-! And-!

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So... this originally wasn’t my Number One pick even though I like it best.

It does have some tech issues. Saving mid-run still doesn’t work. Listen, don’t worry, your progress saves, but you have to finish the run you’re doing. And since runs are only 30-60 minutes, it’s not a deal breaker, but it’s a broken option.

Certain choices don’t seem to have any effect on the game and while some are aesthetic (looking out your peephole might have a creepy visual but that’s it), others just seem like they’re still “under construction” - in the mansion, in the funeral rites investigation, there’s rooms you can enter that don’t seem to affect the ending or do anything, and the game clues point to an action (”cover the mirror in the storage room”) that you can’t actually do.

While I really like the combat in the game, it’s not the most intuitive interface and the tutorial is 100% necessary - I do feel like some of the combat options take up so much “time” that they’re never really viable, and there’s a clap/bow method of dispelling ghost enemies that I think I only managed to get once - so I ignore it ever since.

Still though, these are all small complaints. I love World of Horror to pieces and I’d definitely recommend.

But here’s why I ultimately decided to give it the top spot. Not only are the shops in the game run by dogs, for some reason...

I haven’t unlocked it, but apparently you can play as one too?

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Yeah, that settles that. Congratulations, World of Horror! And thanks to all of you for reading and hope you enjoy another good year of gaming.