Imagine Earth - title

I've been seeing more and more games putting an emphasis on mechanics oriented around environmentalism and sustainability. Games in genres that typically encourage unchecked exploitation of resources are now becoming more and more about the sustainable use of resources. It makes sense. Climate change is becoming more and more of a visible problem that affects our lives in tangible ways. Milliennial game developers are also searching for ways to cope with the fact that our generation and the next will be stuck paying the consequences of the short-sightedness of our parents' and grandparents' generations. Many members of those earlier generations are still, unfortunately in positions of political and corporate power, and make up a large voting block, and are continuing to make selfish, short-sighted decisions that will only make matters worse for the younger generations. It makes sense that younger game developers would be baking those anxieties into the games that they make.

Ecologically-focused colony-building

Imagine Earth is the type of city-builder / strategy sim that has typically been about conspicuous consumption, but it now wants the player to consume more responsibly. Not only does this game expect the player to industrialize the surface of entire planets at the behest of a corporation, it also asks the player to do that with an eye towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and other pollution. Developing a sustainable economy doesn't only mean cutting back on emissions from power plants, industrial activity, and so forth. It also requires restoring or expanding natural habitats by planting forests, growing corals, and so forth.

Imagine Earth prioritizes limiting greenhouse emissions and pollution.

Either the player has to plan the growth of your colonies in a sustainable fashion and prevent emissions and pollution from ever getting out of hand to begin with, or you have to spend the back half of each mission doing damage control.

Unfortunately, just like in real-life, any individual person or corporation or government's environmental efforts aren't necessarily sufficient to curtail the effects of climate change. There are often other corporations or settlements on these planets which don't have the same noble ecological goals, and who will happily ruin things for everybody else. They are there to make a quick buck by exploiting as much of the resources as possible, with no plans for sustained long term habitation -- the other people living on the planet be damned. But the corporation we work for in Imagine Earth does plan on prepping these planets for long-term colonization, so we have to pick up those other corporations' messes. Sometimes through violence, coercion, or sabotage, but usually through a hostile takeover of majority stake.

Not all corporations are concerned with long-term colonization that requires a stable environment.
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Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye - title

When I played it last year (after waiting over a year for its timed Epic Store exclusivity to end), Outer Wilds quickly became one of my favorite games ever due to its innovative sci-fi, exploratory gameplay in its dynamic sandbox solar system full of interesting places that are genuinely worth exploring. It was a compelling sci-fi game about the nature of science and the desire to find out place in the universe. It was also a compelling player-driven mystery game that doesn't hold the player's hand and which provides genuine "eureka!" moments.

I wasn't expecting an expansion because the game seemed so perfect and self-contained that I struggled to even think of what could be included in an expansion. Would they add more planets to the solar system? Would it be a stand-alone prequel with the player playing as one of the extinct Nomai?

But I sure as hell was not going to pass up an excuse to revisit Timber Hearth!

I wasn't going to pass up an excuse to revisit Timber Hearth!

River rafting around the world

One of my favorite things about Outer Wilds is its open-ended exploration of the hand-crafted solar system. Each world is a little puzzle box for the player to unlock, with the solutions to every puzzle involving some sci-fi physics concept that the player has to learn and apply.

The puzzles of Echoes of the Eye don't seem to have that same sci-fi quality to them. Most puzzles involve the use of light, and feel like they could be puzzles in any earthbound adventure or fantasy setting. I just point flashlights at things to trigger mechanisms, turn lights off or on to trigger secret passageways, or turn off my source of light to sneak past photo-sensitive sentries in the dark. I guess I should praise the puzzle design for never falling back on the tried-and-true (yet rote) method of reflecting light off mirrors or through prisms. The actual puzzles are a bit more clever than this, but I just don't find it to be a very engaging or interesting gimmick, especially compared to how novel and creative the core Outer Wilds puzzle box is.

The use of light as the instrument for most interactions with Echoes of the Eye seems to be the result of a concerted effort by the developers to use base game mechanics that are under-utilized in the base game, such as the flashlight and ability to nap at bonfires. The puzzles just lack that sense of awe and discovery that comes with progressing in the base game.

Echoes of the Eye starts off strong with solving a space-based mystery.

Some of the late puzzles do start to embrace Outer Wilds's sci-fi nature. They hide some very fun and interesting surprises that really mess with the player's perception of reality in a very video-game-meta sort of way. But they are so esoteric that the game almost has to literally tell the player what to do. It's like "summoning the tornado in Simon's Quest" levels of esoteric at times.

Honestly, I think the single best puzzle in the game is the one that the player has to solve just to get access to the DLC! It's also the most "Outer Wilds" feeling puzzle in the game. The developers managed to cleverly hide the DLC in plain sight, as if it had been there all along.

The opening for the DLC tasks the player with finding a remote satellite and solving a simple puzzle involving it. Then the expansion treats the player with the awe-inspiring discovery of a massive hidden world that makes up the expansion's primary setting. After that, however, everything feels like pretty typical adventure game stuff. Instead of planet-hopping in a tiny space capsule, I find myself white-water rafting and watching home movies on slide projectors. Later on, there's some horror-adjacent exploration of dark spaces with just a flashlight, and even a little bit of hide-and-seek. Again, it's nothing I haven't seen in a hundred other indie games.

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Humankind - title

It's going to be virtually impossible to review Humankind without frequently comparing it to iterations of Sid Meier's Civilization. Civ has absolutely dominated (and almost completely monopolized) the historical turn-based strategy genre. There have been plenty of space and sci-fi-themed 4x strategy games, ranging from Master of Orion, to Galactic Civilizations, to Stellaris, and even Amplitude's own Endless Space; but not a whole lot in the more Earth-bound sub-genre. I've also been a huge Civ fan (as the readers of my blog can no doubt tell), so it's hard for me to look at any game in this genre and not partially judge it through the lense of comparing it to Civ.

So I'm not even going to pretend to judge Humankind strictly on its own merits, in a vacuum. I simply can't. I'm not sure if anyone can. Amplitude, as a company, clearly looked to Civ for inspiration, took lessons from the successes and failures of its previous strategy games, and said "hey, we want a piece of that pie too." But despite the surface-level comparisons to Civ, Amplitude takes a very different approach to game design. While Civ has always been very firmly rooted as a "digital board game", Humankind takes a much more story-driven and "simulationist" approach, akin to the sort of thing that you might see in a game like Crusader Kings. I think this approach works, and it does a good job of separating Humankind from Civilization.

Culture wars

Perhaps the biggest deviation that Humankind makes from Sid Meier's Civilization is the way that it handles the game's civilizations themselves. In Humankind, you don't play as a single civilization throughout an entire campaign. Instead, each era you have the opportunity to select a new culture from a list of era-specific cultures. I like this concept a lot in principle, but also have some misgivings about the way it works out in practice.

Empires transition into a new culture at the start of each era.

On the one hand, it's great to see a game like this recognize the fact that civilizations aren't singular, monolithic cultures that exist forever, unless they are conquered or die off completely. That gaming paradigm (which Civ has always embraced) ignores the reality that cultures change and evolve over time. They change with the times, and blend elements from other neighboring cultures. And even if a nation or empire falls or collapses, it doesn't just disappear off the face of the planet overnight. It's people get absorbed into whatever nation or empire replaces it, and those people continue to influence the development of that new culture.

But this isn't exactly how Humankind works. The cultures of the game don't gradually transition or evolve due to social, economic, political, or geographic pressures and influences. Instead, at arbitrary points throughout the game, each empire completely changes its culture in a single game turn. And you aren't locked into choosing a related or similar culture either. You can pick any culture that is still available from the given era, no matter how separated that new culture might be from your old culture -- whether that be geographic separation, ideological separation, or even racial separation. I can be Greek one turn, and then suddenly be Aztec the next, and be Khmer the following era.

I was hoping for a system in which players would have to select from a list of related cultures when transitioning into a new era. For example, I was imagining that being Classical Romans means that, when the medieval era hits, I would have to chose between a related culture like Byzantine, Holy Roman, Ostrogothic, Franks, or Papal States. Then, depending on which I picked, my culture would continue to shift to another related culture in the following era. For example, if I picked Byzantine as my medieval successor to Rome, then my early modern culture choices would be things along the lines of the Ottomans or Orthodox Rus; whereas, if I had gone with the Papal States or Holy Roman Empire, then my choices would be things like Venetian, German, or French.

Changing cultures each era is no more silly than ancient
Abraham Lincoln leading ancient America in a bear-skin hat.

Instead, these transitions from one culture to another over the span of a single turn can be very jarring in Humankind. But I guess it's no less jarring than seeing an ancient era Abraham Lincoln leading America in 4000 B.C.E. while wearing his silly bearskin tophat.

I hope that if Humankind gets expansions, that those expansions will modify this culture-changing mechanic so that there are more cultures available each era, but your choices are limited to cultures that are related to the one you were playing in the previous era. Maybe it costs influence (or maybe even fame) to change cultures, and changing to an un-related culture costs more than changing to a closely related one. I know it can be difficult to find such examples of related offshoots for every possible culture, especially for cultures that were conquered or died off in real life, but I think it's a solvable problem.

It's easy to come up with possible successors to the Roman Empire, because every culture in Europe and Asia Minor seemed to claim succession from Rome. It's a lot harder to come up with related successors to culture like the Aztecs or Maya, and it would seem insensitive or outright offensive to limit the choice of succession to the colonial European cultures that had conquered or massacred them in real history. But there are options. In the case of the Maya or Aztecs, successor options could include cultures like the various Pueblo or Navajo cultures, but I admit that's kind of a stretch.

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Axis Football 21 - title

Axis Football is still a tough game to review. It's a very playable game that I support and recommend, but without Maximum Football to make Axis look better by comparison, it's a lot harder to overlook Axis' flaws, limitations, and lack of large-scale improvement. There's forward progress and noticeable changes, but still so many long-standing issues. The slow rate of progress is much more forgiveable than Madden, however, because the developers at Axis Games do not have access to hundreds of programmers and animators, or billions of dollars in cash. Progress is slow and steady, and that's pretty much all we can ask for given the company's limited resources.

If you're looking for a remarkably different game, then you'll be disappointed. Axis 21 feels largely identical to Axis 20, which felt largely identical to Axis 19 If you like Axis Football and are OK spending $30 to play more of it, then you'll get your money's worth.

Axis Football 2021 still looks and feels very similar to previous years.

Customization is the focus in 2021

The primary focus of development for Axis 21 seems to have been in its customization options. Previous iterations offered only limited options for customizing teams and uniforms, but Axis 21 has a much more extensive customization suite. Team uniforms and logos can be edited, and whole new uniforms can be created. Team playbooks and play-calling tendencies can be edited. Even the field is customizable.

About the only things that are missing from this customization suite are the ability to create or modify stadiums, and a playbook editor. Maybe we'll see those next year.

The customization suite is much more extensive this year.

This more advanced customization suite should hopefully draw in some of the crowd that got left in the dust when Maximum Football was canceled. If you're a fan of customizing teams and uniforms, and you haven't played Axis Football before, then 2021 might be the year to hop on the Axis Football bandwagon.

Another nice inclusion in this year's customization suite is the ability to update team rosters, which means I could modify my roster to match my roster from several seasons into Axis 20's Franchise Mode, instead of having to start over with the same initial roster that I've been using since 2018. It's a lot of work though to modify every player on my team (let alone the entire league), and I opted instead to just randomize my roster and go from there. Randomizing the roster is, I think, also a new feature in this year's game. I wish Axis would include the ability to import last year's Franchise rosters so that I can have a sense of continuity and progress between releases, without all the tedious busy-work on my end. Being able to import team customizations from year-to-year would also help reduce the prep work required by the user, and allow us to get right into enjoying the game.

Using the roster editor, I can re-create my team from last year, but it's a lot of busy-work.
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12 Minutes - title

It may have taken almost 20 years after Majora's Mask, but it looks like time loop games have suddenly become an emerging fad. Not that it's a bad thing, per se. Outer Wilds has, after all, become one of my favorite games ever. Twelve Minutes is much more scaled-down and far less ambitious than Outer Wilds; it takes place entirely within a small, one-bedroom apartment, and the individual loops average 5-10 minutes instead of the 22-minute loops of Outer Wilds.

12 Minutes has a high-degree of responsiveness to player actions.

12 Minutes is also a much more straight-forward point-and-click puzzle-adventure game in a vein much more reminiscent of classic Lucasarts games. There's only a handful of interactive objects in the apartment, and each one has a variety of different uses. In this way, 12 Minutes rather explicitly telegraphs the solutions to puzzles, since there's only a handful of things that the player can even try. The options available to the player lead the player down the path to progress, and if you ever get stumped, idle conversation will often provide clues as to what you could maybe try next.

Although the seams in the facade do become evident if the player gets stuck repeating a particular loop too many times, I did find myself impressed by just how naturally reactive 12 Minutes is to player interference. The wife and cop will react believably to many things that the player might do, including some off-the-wall things. The wife might comment on weird or rude behavior by me, or the entire time loop may go in a completely unexpected direction because I chose to do something slightly different. It's a surprisingly wide and robust possibility space.

The short duration of time loops, and the relatively small amount of intractable objects really encourages lots of player experimentation. Screwing up any given loop doesn't lose a whole lot of progress, so there's very little penalty for trying some seemingly-crazy solution on a whim, and sometimes, it will even reward the player with some new piece of information that you didn't have before, or a clue to how you might proceed.

12 Minutes provides lots of subtle clues for ways to proceed.

12 Minutes is also quite good about providing clues that are subtle enough to not be obvious spoilers of what to do next, but which might still make you facepalm in retrospect "of course that's what I should have done!" What makes these clues work without feeling like they solve the game for you is that there is often multiple ways to go about testing them. The wife making an off-hand comment about needing to clean the closet is, in retrospect, an obvious clue that the player should check the closet. There is a useful object in there, but its usefulness isn't necessarily immediately obvious. What might also not be immediately obvious is that there's another way that the closet is immediately useful, it just has nothing to do with the object you found there.

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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