Game Over – Overboard! (#JustOnePercent 45/100)

Developer: inkle Ltd.
Release Date: June 2, 2021
MSRP: $14.99

Overboard! is a bit of a backwards murder mystery. It’s not a whodunnit – you did it after all – but a whocouldadunnit as you unravel the mysteries of the other passengers on the ship to figure out who can be blamed, and who is going to help you get away with killing your husband. It’s best to go avoid walkthroughs for this one – the point is not to succeed on your first try, but to pull at the different threads to see how it all shakes out until you manage to pull off the perfect crime.

Your first playthrough is almost definitely going to result in you going to jail. That’s okay. You’ll be able to try again, taking with you the things you learned from your last run. Everyone else will do things exactly as they had before – only your character can change things up. If you visit a location early enough, you can prevent an important clue from being found. If you’re in the right spot at the right time, you may be able to use your charms to convince someone to help you, or perhaps you’ll be able to blackmail them into silence. It might take a few runs before you actually get away with murder, but as long as you switch up something each time you play, you’ll learn something new and – just maybe – be able to twist that to your advantage.

It took me three attempts to avoid getting thrown in jail, and seven before I got away clean, with someone else taking the fall for my crime, with a total play time of just over 90 minutes. There are still quite a few alternate routes I could explore, and more achievements to unlock, but the retail price is a little steep for a game that can be beaten (without any sort of out of game information) in such a short period of time.

Still, I enjoyed Overboard! quite a bit; every little bit of information I managed to stumble across made me feel clever, and as I finished each play through, I was eager to dive back in, armed with new clues about how to get away with it. Despite already having “won”, there are a few more things I’d like to try, just to see how they play out, and the short time per run (mine averaged between 10 and 15 minutes) means that “just one more time” isn’t overly tedious or a big commitment.

SteamDB estimates that Overboard! has sold somewhere between 6,100 and 16,700 copies on Steam. Reviews are mostly positive, with detractors mainly citing how quickly you can see everything it has to offer as a point against it. I personally appreciate a game that doesn’t overstay its welcome, but agree that $15 might be a little high for the amount of content. It is ranked 730 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Solasta: Crown of the Magister (#JustOnePercent 44/100)

Developer: Tactical Adventures
Release Date: May 27, 2021
MSRP: $39.99

For quite a while, RPG games probably made up about 50% of what I played. Knowing that when I bought a game, I’d be able to get lost in a story and spread that gameplay over weeks – or longer – made me giddy. In recent years, I’ve found myself avoiding RPGs for exactly that reason – the length of the stories are intimidating. Solasta: Crown of the Magister is perhaps even a little short, by RPG standards – HowLongToBeat estimates a play time of 35-45 hours for the base game – but it took over an hour just to get my party created and through the tutorial portions of the game, and it was over two and a half before I completed the first major story beat.

You start with a four character party; there are premade characters you can choose but the game recommends that you create your own. The game begins in an inn, where all four of your characters have come together, all applying for the same job – to work for the Legacy Council. While you wait for you prospective employer to show up, the party members exchange stories, which you get to play through to learn some of the basic mechanics of the game.

Of course, you’re hired as a group, and tasked with checking out an outpost with which the kingdom has recently lost contact. There’s quite a bit in the town to explore and interact with, if you’re so inclined, but I just wanted to get into the meat of the game. In retrospect, I wish I had picked up some extra healing potions before I got on the road.

If you’re craving an experience close to the experience of playing tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, this might be a good choice, provided of course it’s tabletop combat you’re hoping for. I personally always felt like combat was the least interesting part of a good table top game. Dice rolls are plentiful in combat, less common (but not absent) from the rest of the game, and just like real dice, sometimes they hate you. The randomness that comes with being reliant on dice isn’t my favorite mechanic – I like to succeed or fail on my strategies and skills, and not because my random numbers are bad, and the monster’s random numbers are good.

Now, I haven’t played a tabletop game in probably a dozen years, and the last really beefy party-based RPG I played was probably Dragon Age: Origins back in 2017, although my library is positively bursting with them. I want to get lost in these worlds, but I always forget how slow these games can feel. That was probably my biggest gripe with Solasta: Crown of the Magister. Movement feels slow. Combat feels slow. Cutscenes can feel eternal (although those can be sped up by clicking through them). Loot – at least in the early game – doesn’t feel particularly exciting or motivational. I don’t want to say I didn’t enjoy my time with it at all – I just kind of felt like I was always waiting for the next thing, waiting for it to get so good I didn’t want to stop playing. I didn’t quite make it. I expect that this genre of game just isn’t for me anymore – I’ve really been drawn to shorter, more focused story-driven experiences over the past few years.

SteamDB estimates that Solasta: Crown of the Magister has sold somewhere between 226,300 and 622,300 copies on Steam. It seems to be a fairly popular fill in title for folks waiting impatiently for the next Baldur’s Gate, and reviews have been generally positive. It is ranked 412 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Scoot Kaboom and the Tomb of Doom (#JustOnePercent 43/100)

Developer: Janius Digital
Release Date: June 1, 2021
MSRP: $11.99

Disclaimer: This is another title I played for significantly less than the hour minimum I set for myself, but I was impressed enough that I wanted to do a Quick Look anyway.

Unless you’re new here – and if you are, thanks for stopping by – you probably already know that I’m outrageously bad at platforming games. I am also stubborn, and have been known to push through a platformer every now and then if it hooks me for some reason – a great story, or a really interesting gimmick – or if the platforming is more incidental, which usually translates to “not as challenging”.

The gimmick in Scoot Kaboom and the Tomb of Doom is that the entire game takes place on one gigantic screen. You can zoom in (or out) at any time, and most folks are probably going to spend most of their time zoomed in while playing. Still, it’s a neat concept, but I’m terrible at it.

Yes, you’re reading that correctly. That’s 16 deaths in less than two minutes.

On the upside, you come back from death super fast. Sure, you end up back at the last checkpoint, which may or may not be very far back, but that does bring me to my next point. Modifiers. This game is absolutely dripping with modifiers that mean that people like me, who suck so hard at platforming, can still play this game.

Initially, I turned on only one modifier – more checkpoints. It’s one of four options you can toggle either on or off to make the game easier, with the fourth being full on invincibility. You can also adjust the speed of the tomb as well as the speed of the game overall. Not having a lot of experience with pure platformers, I don’t know how common these types of options are, but I have to say, I absolutely love everything about this.

But as I’ve said – I’m stubborn. No matter how much I already know I probably cannot do this, I feel like I should be able to do this with minimum assistance, and generally speaking, I don’t care for invincibility or “god modes” and I hardly ever use them. I did manage to bumble my way through a fairly significant portion of the map with only additional check points, but it meant there were a lot of neon crime scenes in my way, and my death counter was skyrocketing.

So much fake gator blood. So much.

Less than 20 minutes in, I realized the best thing I could do with this game for the purposes of this post was mess around in the modifiers and see if anything short of full immortality was going to make this more playable for a scrub like me. I decided to check off More Checkpoints, Double Jump, and Instant Pickup, and reduce Tomb Speed down to 50%. Now mind you, this still didn’t make the game easy for me, but the difference between More Checkpoints only and most of the modifiers was pretty huge.

Using More Checkpoints only.
Using More Checkpoints, Double Jump, Instant Pickup, and 50% Tomb Speed.

I managed to get to the same checkpoint in a little more than half the time, with a little less than half the deaths, and that was with taking the time to find (and navigate) hidden sections to collect four gems instead of just the one I got almost completely by accident. Of course, even turning the speed way down didn’t help with the spots where you need to have precise timing, but for everything else, the increase in playability and decrease in frustration was enormous.

Even being unable to get very far into the game, I probably would have given it a hesitant thumbs up for its cool gimmick, retro soundtrack and 80’s neon vibes for precision platformer fans. However, the modifier system and customizable difficulty turn it into an enthusiastic recommendation, not just for platformer fans, but for people who feel like they’d like to learn platformers. You can start as easy as you need it, and turn the difficulty up incrementally as your skill improves. I think that’s an absolutely fantastic system to draw in players inexperience with a genre of games, and I’m definitely glad I played around with Scoot Kaboom and the Tomb of Doom.

SteamDB estimates that Scoot Kaboom and the Tomb of Doom has sold somewhere between 900 and 2,600 copies on Steam. It’s unfortunate that such a widely accessible title got so little attention, even considering its inclusion in the 2021 Yogscast Jingle Jam (which is how I ended up with a copy). What is fantastic is that every single review is a positive one. It is ranked 751 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Tainted Grail: Conquest (#JustOnePercent 42/100)

Developer: Awaken Realms Digital
Release Date: May 27, 2021
MSRP: $19.99

Deck-building roguelites are far from my favorite genre, but it feels like they’re very popular, at least if you’re going by how many get made. I usually am put off by the amount of constraints put on the deck-building part of the game, and annoyed by the randomness of the roguelike parts. Both of these irritants are present in Tainted Grail: Conquest, but there’s something about the atmosphere of the game that kept me playing longer than I needed to.

Set in the world of Arthurian legends, your character is part of a group of refugees who have settled in a land where the Wyrdness is all around. After a bit of introduction, accompanied by some beautiful artwork, you meet a creature who tells you that you’ve been saved from death (sort of) and put into a world between time in order to help save others and rebuild from some catastrophe that isn’t really explained at the outset. Initially only one class is available to play – the Wyrdhunter – and with very little preamble, you’re dropped into the world to try to conquer the monsters of the world and save others who are in the same state as you.

This will not happen quickly. In fact, I think it took until my third run to save my first villager, the Blacksmith. At this point, Runestones come into play. Runestones are slottable items that give benefit to your character through that run, but do not persist through death. The more villagers you rescue, the more options you have for preparing your character when starting out, but having to constantly restart with very little carrying over may frustrate some players.

Combat is pretty standard deckbuilder fare – you have limited energy per turn, and can choose your actions from cards that are randomly drawn from your deck. As you win fights, you gain experience and levels, which allow you to add more cards to your deck and choose more perks for your character. I did appreciate that mousing over your opponents allow you to see what types of things they do, and the icons that tell you what they plan to do on their next turn; I rarely felt like I was defeated by not understanding my opponent, only by not having the tools available (or the skill to use them) to be victorious.

I found I started enjoying the game significantly more once I’d done enough with the Wyrdhunter to unlock the second class – The Summoner. Although still not my preferred character archetype, I vastly preferred playing with minions and magic than with a big sword, and I feel like the game does itself a disservice by not allowing the player to select a starting class of their choice from among the three schools (melee, magic, or ranged damage). Although the Summoner starts with a lower base health, having minions to soak up some of the damage meant that I emerged healthier from most encounters, and was able to progress further, as healing availability mid-run is extremely limited.

I personally find it hard to engage with story in roguelites, because it trickles out oh-so-very slowly, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the gameplay of Tainted Grail: Conquest. I played for a little more than two hours, and only managed to rescue two villagers, and didn’t even come close to being able to beat the first boss. While this snail’s pace meta-progression is probably really great for people who like to get a lot of playtime from their games, for me it doesn’t take too long for it to feel tedious.

SteamDB estimates that Tainted Grail: Conquest has sold somewhere between 111,900 and 307,800 copies on Steam, which feels like really good sales numbers in an over-saturated genre. It is ranked 274 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Game Over – The Wild At Heart (#JustOnePercent 41/100)

Developer: Moonlight Kids
Release Date: May 20, 2021
MSRP: $24.99

I’ve been vaguely interested in The Wild At Heart since I spotted it on GamePass a few months ago, but puzzle adventure games are so hit and miss for me, I kept putting it off. As of a few days ago, it’s no longer available through GamePass. Fortunately for me, it’s still playable through Humble Trove, and because of where I had it scheduled and when it was set to go off of GamePass, that’s the version I ended up playing.

It took me just under 9 hours to complete the storyline on the easier of the two difficulties, and I knew before I was through my first hour of game play that I was going to want to see this one through to the end credits. While I feel like the Wanderer difficulty better fit my play style, I also feel like in some ways, I missed out on some of the experience, but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here.

You begin the game as Wake, a boy who had made plans with his best friend Kirby to run away from home together, and manages to get so lost, he ends up in what feels like another world. The Deep Woods is the home of the Greenshields, and their companions, the Spritelings, who protect the world at large from the dark forces of the Nether. When you arrive, most of the Greenshields are missing and things are in disarray after the loss of The Green Witch. You’re asked to lend a hand, adventuring with the Spritelings, who seem to be fond of you, and you start exploring, using both your new friends and your trusty backpack vacuum to overcome obstacles in your path.

There’s very little in the Deep Woods that you can interact with directly – most tasks need to be performed by sending out your Spritelings. Initially, you only have Twiglings, who help by destroying toxic mushrooms, reinvigorating plant life, and carrying large objects back to where they belong. As you progress through the story, you will meet four other variety of Spritelings, all of whom are suited for different sorts of tasks, so you’ll want to make sure you keep a good assortment with you at all times.

Once you get a bit into the story, your friend Kirby manages to join you, and then you will control both characters. By default, Wake, Kirby and the Spritelings all move together, but you can (and will need to) occasionally separate them. Kirby is smaller, and can squeeze through logs to get to previously inaccessible areas, and she soon acquires a special lantern, which, like Wake’s Gustbuster, can draw things in close to her. This ability is critical not only for quickly picking up piles of resources, but for herding up wayward Spritelings.

Once you unlock the hub area, you’ll be able to repair some structures, which unlock some upgrade paths & additional game play elements. While playing on the Wanderer difficulty, most of this felt irrelevant throughout the majority of the game, and I admit that I mostly skipped over all of it. Sure, I picked things up and threw them in my stash, but I didn’t feel like I needed to grind resources to upgrade my health – unless I stayed out after dark, I very rarely took damage, and if I stayed out after dark, it was unlikely that another pip (or even two) of health was going to make the difference.

Making sure to get to camp once the sun sets is critical – once it’s dark, the denizens of the Never come out, and your only real recourse is to find a light source. Monsters you encounter during the day time can be dealt with by your Spriteling army, but you’re not meant to fight the forces of the Never, only to avoid them for the majority of the game. Playing the game on the Wanderer difficulty also meant that combat really didn’t feel like a big focus – throw the right Spritelings on the monsters, and they were vanquished fairly quickly. Because of this, the very end of the game was a bit of a culture-shock, and making sure I had an adequate supply of health restoration items was critical for the first time in the entire game.

Still, I enjoyed the story and the game play of The Wild At Heart, and the pacing felt really good – every time I really understood how it all worked, a new element was added, almost right until the very end of the game. I will admit to consulting a walkthrough a time or two, but usually it was due to my poor navigational skills rather than particularly obtuse puzzles – I struggled with finding things, not with figuring out what I needed to do once I arrived.

Overall, it’s a beautiful game with lovely music, and interesting story, and puzzles that will make you think, but that for the most part, aren’t likely to frustrate. Post-credits, you can go back into your save file and do completionist things if that suits you – what feels like a point of no return will roll the credits once you’re past it, but doesn’t stop you from finishing up anything you missed.

SteamDB estimates that The Wild At Heart has sold somewhere between 4,700 and 13,000 copies on Steam. While those aren’t stellar sales numbers, subscription service availability and low replay value have probably lowered sales a bit, and as a Humble Games published title, it’s a good candidate for eventual inclusion in Humble Choice. However, reviews overall have been favorable, and it is ranked 342 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Lacuna (#JustOnePercent 40/100)

Developer: DigiTales Interactive
Release Date: May 20, 2021
MSRP: $15.99

Full disclosure: If Lacuna hadn’t been part of the December 2021 Humble Choice, I never would have given it a second look. Although I like detective games in general, I don’t play too many point and click adventures. I’m really not a big fan of pixel graphics, and I really don’t care for reading in a pixel-heavy font. I also tend to avoid sci-fi plots, even if it’s fancied up by a bit of noir. It just didn’t really look like a game that was going to do it for me.

Well, an hour and forty minutes in, and I’ve completed the first act, and had to force myself to stop playing in order to do a Quick Look. I guess that’s what I get for making assumptions and putting things off until the last minute.

After a short prologue (which I really really hope has more relevance later), you are put into the shoes of CDI Agent Neil Conrad, who is pretty much a typical noir protagonist in a futuristic world. Your agency has been tasked with protecting a diplomat, and while you are off-shift, you get a call telling you he’s been assassinated in the villa where he was staying. You rush over to meet up with your partner Gary to try to figure out what happened and who is behind it all.

As you examine evidence, interview witnesses, and draw conclusions, your cell will be invaluable. Not only does it store a log of everyone you talk to, and every clue you examine, it’s also where you submit your findings via multiple choice sheets. Getting to the right answer should be simple enough, provided you don’t miss anything, which could be easy to do depending on the choices you make while investigating.

Of course, the interface also provides some clues to the player as well as the player character. If you’ve missed a clue somewhere, you’ll see a question mark in your interface, indicating that you haven’t quite found everything you should be looking at.

I personally wasn’t overly invested in the big story, but if you are, there are plenty of opportunities to learn more about the world by downloading news stories from terminals. However, I was hooked on the smaller stories, and the moral quandaries Agent Conrad finds himself in at just about every step of the investigating. I’m not sure if you get all the clues regardless of whether you decide to follow your heart, or just follow protocol, but whatever path you choose, you’ll be committed to it. Lacuna has a single autosave system, so there’s no going back if you feel like you might have missed something.

That’s a quirk I thought I would really dislike, but it certainly adds to the atmosphere and the feeling of actually being a part of a high stakes investigation. Save points are frequent enough that they won’t make you feel as if you’re being held hostage, but with a three act structure, and a story that is likely to last somewhere around 5 hours, I’m not sure how eager I would be to dive in for a replay. Multiple play throughs look mandatory, however, if you’re chasing achievements, as some seem to be completely contradictory based on binary choices.

In ditching some of the more irritating pieces of traditional point and click adventure games, Lacuna makes sure that the game play elements don’t get in the way of the story, and I can respect that.

It’s definitely an interesting take on the adventure game formula, and the detective gameplay is compelling enough (if not overly challenging). It’s listed as being playable on the Steam Deck, so I may finish up the story that way, provided I don’t find the pixel-font too difficult on the eyes on a smaller screen. I definitely want to see how the story ends, although I don’t anticipate too much difficulty with the whodunnit portion – being thorough should be all that it takes to solve the crime.

SteamDB estimates that Lacuna has sold somewhere between 21,200 and 58,200 copies on Steam. Although I didn’t think I’d care too much for this one, I’m going to join almost 95% of reviewers in giving it a thumbs up. It is ranked 264 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Just Die Already (#JustOnePercent 39/100)

Developer: DoubleMoose Games
Release Date: May 20, 2021
MSRP: $14.99

I’m just going to come right out and say it – I liked Goat Simulator. It’s wildly outside my typical gaming genres, but I was surprised by just how much there was to do in the game, and how little of it was required in any way. So when I originally played the demo for Just Die Already back in June of 2020, I was anticipating more of the same.

If it hadn’t been part of the 2021 Yogcast Jingle Jam Bundle, I might never have given the game another thought. Since it was already in my library, I decided to give it another chance – it certainly wouldn’t be the first time I enjoyed a game more upon revisiting it. Sometimes, whether I enjoy something has more to do with my current state of mind and mood than with the quality (or lack thereof) of the game.

Disclaimer: At least of one of the screenshots I’m going to be including is heavy on the cartoon gore. If that bothers you, you might just want to skip the rest of this post – just know, you’re really not going to enjoy the game either. Cartoon gore is most of what it has going for it.

There are four playable characters to choose from, and they seem to only differ in appearance, so choose whichever one it will bother you least to see maimed over and over. You’re likely to cut off a hand (or worse) before you figure out how to get out of the room you’re locked in at the start of the game. Once you manage to enter the retirement home proper, you’ll find you’re still locked in. The only way to escape is to get yourself thrown out. It’s not terribly difficult, but it might be awfully gory, and by the time you’re tossed out on the street, you could be missing an appendage or two.

Which is, pretty much, a big part of the game. At its core, Just Die Already is a ragdoll physics sandbox. Shortly after being removed from your former living arrangements, someone hands you a “Bucket List” – completing objectives on your Bucket List will unlock cosmetics and usable items. It may also grant you tickets, which you’ll need to collect at least 50 of if you want to hit up a vending machine for a retirement package to Florida.

This isn’t a game you’re going to be playing for a deep, meaningful story that will stay with you. No, this is a game you play when you want to see cartoon old folks broken and bleeding in new and interesting ways. You can respawn anytime you want, or you’ll automatically respawn if you run out of blood or removable body parts. Which is to say, you’ll be dead (or nearly so) quite often. Everything in this game wants to break you.

In fact, there are certain places you cannot access unless you’re missing the correct limbs, and if you want all those tickets and cosmetics, you’ll want to go everywhere. There are some definite puzzle components, not just in how to maim yourself correctly to get past locked doors, but as you visit new areas, new Bucket List items get added to your journal, and figuring out how to complete the tasks does have some definite puzzle-game vibes.

For me, the puzzle parts and the collectible parts were not enough to compel me to play through the game. I felt like the floppy controls were the complete opposite of what I would want in a physics based puzzler, and the “humor” of it all just wasn’t to my taste. Watching granny drop trou and urinate on a live wire just doesn’t do it for me. I found I was frustrated more often than amused, and for me, that’s just not a recipe for a satisfying evening of gaming.

I will admit, this store display did give me a giggle, though.

SteamDB estimates that Just Die Already has sold between 31,200 and 85,900 copies on Steam. Reviews seem to indicate that most people knew what they were getting into, and they were there for it. It is ranked 2333 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Subnautica: Below Zero (#JustOnePercent 38/100)

Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
Release Date: May 14, 2021
MSRP: $29.99

I seriously considered skipping over this one entirely. I still haven’t gotten around to playing the original Subnautica, although it’s been in my library since its inclusion in the Humble Freedom Bundle, back in February of 2017. However, since the description led me to believe this is an expansion of the universe rather than a direct sequel, and since the game was available as part of XBox Game Pass, I decided I’d give Subnautica: Below Zero a chance to sell me on underwater exploration and base building.

There are four difficulty levels to choose from. I knew I wanted to check out the story, so that ruled out Creative. I’m starting to think I maybe only like the idea of survival games, and I often find that managing hunger and thirst is the least compelling part of the gameplay, so I decided to go with Freedom, although I appreciate that there’s multiple ways to play this one based on what the player finds appealing.

The story sets you up to go looking on an arctic alien planet for your missing sister. This isn’t a sanctioned rescue op; you have no support and you’re pretty much on your own after your shuttle crashes. Thankfully, the underwater drop pod deployed in time, and that will be your initial home base from which you can start collecting resources, fabricating new items, and unraveling the mystery surrounding your sister’s disappearance.

The beginning of the game is very slow – you’re not given much for guidance, and you lack even the most basic tools needed to survive underwater. I think the early game exploration would have been less tedious if I didn’t have to swim to the surface every few minutes to replenish my air. Between that, and 3D navigation not really being my strong suit, the first half and hour or so was painful.

Once I started discovering the resources I needed to make a scanner and a survival knife, things started to pick up. I was then able to use the knife to obtain the materials I needed to make a basic oxygen tank, which is still an agonizingly small amount of air. I was starting to explore further from base, when unexpectedly, a sea monkey got all grabby hands and took my scanner. Another took my knife. I needed to head back to my pod to make new tools, and I managed to completely lose track of the place I had been where the story was starting to actually progress.

While I can see why this series of games is pretty much universally liked, I don’t think I will personally be going back to either game. I definitely struggled a bit with some motion sickness, although I didn’t spend too much time adjusting settings to see if I could do anything to mitigate it. Really, the turn off for me was the navigation and the O2 management – I was just getting turned around to easily when I surfaced, and I 100% acknowledge this is a me-problem and not a flaw in the game.

Subnautica: Below Zero is probably the most commercially successful game I’ll look at for this project. SteamDB estimates it has sold somewhere between 1.29 and 3.55 million copies on Steam. Over 90% of the reviews are positive, and it’s easy to see why – it’s a beautiful, captivating game. It just wasn’t right for me. It is ranked 188 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Polyville Canyon (#JustOnePercent 37/100)

Developer: Henagames
Release Date: May 20, 2021
MSRP: $1.99

Polyville Canyon is a game that should, in theory, check a whole bunch of boxes for me. Bright, colorful color palette? Check. Chill gameplay? Check. I get to build things? Check! I used to play a lot of pure city builders when I was younger, but I bounced pretty hard off of both Cities: Skylines and the most recent Sim City. Still, I felt $2 wasn’t too much to gamble to find out if the genre still held appeal for me.

I feel like the answer to that is – kind of.

I chose story mode, which dropped me right into a tutorial, and man, the Polyville Canyon tutorial is lengthy for a game that basically has you plopping down roads and buildings. There’s no infrastructure here that you need to worry about – even roadways are mostly cosmetic, since they give your people (which the game refers to as Neighbors) a place to wander around. Everything you want to place costs money, again, except for roads, but you have a regular income supply in the train, as well as rewards for completing tutorial & neighbor missions throughout the game.

Experience points (XP) come quickly and easily as well. Each time you level up, you gain access to new buildings, new neighbors, and new customization options for existing buildings. Everything you place can be moved without penalty, customized for free, or sold for a little less than what you paid for it. It’s a very low-key take on the city building formula; there are goals & money, but if you run out of either one, all you have to do is wait. It’ll come.

There’s a first person view, if you want to wander around the town you’ve build, but there’s not much to do there either except click on the Neighbors to “meet” them. This enables you to see what special perks they bring to your town, and to watch a rather adorable little greeting dance.

Once I completed the tutorial, and unlocked Neighbor requests, I started enjoying the game a bit more. This will likely come as a shock to no one who knows me at all, but I like structure and goals. Building things for aesthetic reasons will always interest me less than building things because someone asked for them. Which is what, in the end, made the game a bit of a miss for me.

But there’s not much to complain about in Polyville Canyon; the sheer simplicity means that you pretty much get exactly what’s being advertised. It might be a hard sell if you don’t care for the art style, but if the idea of building a cute little walkable town without needing to worry about traffic jams, or zoning, or poring over spreadsheets, it’s absolutely worth the pick-up.

SteamDB estimates that Polyville Canyon has sold between 2,100 and 5,700 copies on Steam. Almost everyone who reviewed it liked this peaceful sandbox, and it is ranked 1196 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.

Quick Look – Before We Leave (#JustOnePercent 36/100)

Developer: Balancing Monkey Games
Release Date: May 13, 2021
MSRP: $19.99

I had been following the development of Before We Leave long before its release. I picked it up during the Steam Summer Sale last year, and, as I have a tendency to do, immediately forgot I purchased it. When one’s library gets to a certain size, it’s a thing that happens.

The appeal, at least for me, was this was a combat-free city builder. It’s a genre I really love; I like building and researching and managing production chains, but most of these types of games end up leading to periods of conflict, and I find the combat in them to run the gamut from tedious to game-ending. There are plenty of games out there that I’m sure do combat in this genre brilliantly, it’s just not why I play this type of game.

At first glance, Before We Leave might appear to be a medieval city builder, but it’s actually post-apocalyptic, and there are remnants of a former civilization scattered about. As you progress through the tech tree, you’ll be able to gather resources to make repairs to the things that were left behind and use them yourself. The initial tutorial island guides you through what you need to research in order to be able to repair a nearby ship, which will enable you to strike out for other islands, with different biomes and resources and artifacts.

The first couple of hours in most city building games are usually just spent learning the systems and information available to you, and that’s also true here. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, but I also feel like it does most things in a manner similar to most games in the genre. You’re learning the details, not the concept.

I think this would be a game I would really love, except for one thing: roads. The game uses hex grids and the maps are fairly small, so roads feel like they take up a lot of usable space. If it were just about movement penalties (or not getting movement bonuses), it might not be so bad, but pretty much everything in the game needs to be connected to a road. When you consider there’s also things like forest titles (which are your renewable source of wood), and biomes where crops can only be grown in a few places, it doesn’t take long to start resenting every inch of space that roads are taking up.

Outside of that one gripe (which I’m sure I would learn how to manage better with time), I found myself really liking just about everything else about the game. The art style is charming, and the music is good overall (although it started out with a track that was less music and more people mumbling which I could have done without). The tech tree makes as much logical sense as tech trees ever do, and the idea of giving buildings bonuses based on what they are next to seems like it will add a great additional layer of strategy.

I also really appreciate the range of playstyle options available. When you create a new game, you have quite a few settings you can tweak to your liking. If you’re looking for more challenge, you can decrease the number of resources available, or increase the rate of pollution or building costs. If you just want to chill out and watch your citizens work and explore, you can make that happen. There are also a handful of challenge-style scenarios, recommended only for players who’ve become familiar with the game, but they’re not locked behind anything, so you can even start there if you’re so inclined.

Pacifist city builders might be a bit of a niche genre, but SteamDB estimates that Before We Leave has sold between 20,900 and 57,500 copies on Steam. It was also part of the February 2022 Humble Choice, and it is ranked 2474 out of 10,967 games released in 2021.