We’re heading into that post-E3, pre-silly season lull, which means few blockbuster games but plenty of interesting indies. Remember Summer of Arcade back on the Xbox 360? Yeah, Xbox has been following this ‘indie-an summer’ pattern for some time, and we’ve benefited from it with classics like Limbo, Fez and Wasteland 3.
So, what will be the indie darling of July 2021? Some strong bets include Last Stop, from the incredibly prolific Annapurna Interactive, and Eldest Souls, which might sound like FromSoftware did a collaboration with, um, FromSoftware, but is actually a top-down dungeon crawler that looks the absolute business.
The biggest studios are taking advantage of the AAA wasteland too, with a few sequels, ports and re-releases of note. Microsoft Flight Simulator gets unceremoniously crammed onto an Xbox, while the F1 series receives its latest iteration in the form of F1 2021, just as the World Championship gets interesting. There’s also a fair few prominent Game Pass titles, so now might be the time to treat yourself to an Ultimate subscription.
It’s not often that an F1 game arrives on pole with so much to talk about. It’s the first F1 game since Codemasters got swallowed up by EA in February, for example. That may be enough time, or not enough time at all, for EA to start re-positioning the franchise. You can bet that we’ll be scrutinising the offering to see if there are any of EA’s fingerprints over it.
It’s also landing as the traditional F1 status quo gets a shake-up. 2021’s season has brought in various technical regulation changes, plenty of driver moves (bye Vettel! Hi Vettel!), many COVID accommodations and the end result of all those shenanigans has been a new pace-setter. Max Verstappen leads the way, and Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes are being posed some questions.
Aside from the real-world stuff, there’s plenty new to stoke a bit of interest in F1 2021. Braking Point is the first story mode for a Codemasters F1 game, as you choose from one of four teams to take to the top. There’s a two-player campaign, which will add some interesting dynamics: will you respect the call to let your partner pass? And there’s a Real-Season Start mode, where you can drop into the current state of the World Championship. Go on, bring Sir Lewis down a peg.
A common thread through the month is just how many of the games are coming to Game Pass on day one. Among them is Cris Tales, which – if you squint – looks like a bog-standard turn-based JRPG, but is actually miles more interesting than that.
It looks ace for one, a Saturday morning cartoon that’s been repurposed for a game. There’s a touch of the modern She-Ra about the class of animation here, and you can move into and out of the frame to get where you’re going, like you would in Paper Mario. The developers, Dream Uncorporated, are also a Colombian outfit, and their home country’s culture and architecture bleeds into the game.
Then there’s the time-based shenanigans. If we had a pound for every game that used time manipulation as a unique-selling-point, well, we’d get a bumper round of Maccy D’s in. But there’s something genuinely impressive about how Cris Tales has gone about it. You can time-jump in battle or on the game map, and Cris Tales nattily slices the game screen into thirds, with the past on the left, present in the middle and the future on the right. Moving enemies between them has all sorts of repercussions. We can’t quite picture it, but it sounds exciting, dammit.
Next on the Game Pass bandwagon is The Ascent. Created by just eleven people in Sweden, it looks tighter and more atmospheric than games made by, say, a thousand people as a follow up to The Witcher III. Yep, this is a cyberpunk game, so there will be inevitable comparisons with that other recent release, but The Ascent has some rather different ambitions.
This is an action-RPG but with a perspective that’s normally reserved for twin-stick shooters. You wander about an isometric landscape, either in combat mode or talky mode. In combat mode it feels most like the aforesaid twin-stick shooter, as you aim your laser-sights at opponents and utilise an arsenal of weapons to take them down. In talky mode (our words, not theirs), The Ascent feels like an old-school RPG, with dense environments, intricate dialogue trees and plenty of ways to level up.
But it’s the atmosphere that gets us excited. We’re still bemused how eleven people could have created it, but this world is one of the most fantastically realised that we’ve seen in modern times, perhaps only pipped by Disco Elysium. Rain drums down like it’s auditioning for the third in the Blade Runner trilogy, and advertisement hoardings line the area. Trailers make us want to grab a pad and explore ourselves, and that’s got to be a good thing.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
Grab your two-hundred-pound flight stick and yoke system: Microsoft Flight Simulator is due for arrival on the Xbox. And yes, Game Pass gets you a free(ish) ticket. If you’ve ever found yourself on a long-haul flight and thought “dang it, I want to be the one at the front, yanking all the sticks”, then Microsoft Flight Simulator is clearly the game for you.
Somehow, the entire PC experience has been vacuum-packed into an Xbox download. Let’s take a moment to comprehend how much is here: you’re getting two million cities (Microsoft must have a loose definition of ‘city’ here), 1.5 billion buildings and over thirty-seven thousand airports. Sure, they may have cheated and borrowed notes from map software, but still – it’s mind-boggling.
This isn’t going to be for everyone, but for the people it is for, well, this is going to be all-consuming. With day-night cycles, weather systems, and hangars full of planes to try out – from commercial to private – this is going to disappear a few people from our streets.
A bit like seeing ‘A Spike Lee Joint’ on a movie or ‘Limited Edition’ on a KitKat Chunky, the label ‘from Annapurna Interactive’ is a guarantee that you’re on to something fascinating and probably damn good to boot. So we come to Last Stop which has a doubly strong pedigree, as it’s also designed by the fine folks who gave us the Twin Peaks-loving mood piece, Virginia.
But where Virginia was abstract and non-linear, Last Stop is opting for more traditional storytelling. At least, that’s how it seems. This looks to be an anthology piece, where the various storylines come together at the end, much like a Quantic Dreams game.
It’s set in modern day London, and you play three different characters. There’s Donna, a teenager who gets involved in a spot of unintended kidnapping; John, a single dad who uncovers a cursed artefact; and Meena, a cutthroat businesswoman who discovers something magical in the company’s basement.
Knowing Virginia, there will be emotional twists and turns, and plenty will be hidden below the surface. Expect this one to be on ‘Best Narrative Game’ lists come the end of the year.
So, you’ve got a game that’s a Souls-like, hard as nails and with plenty of ludicrous, screen-sized bosses. How do you suggest to a discerning gamer that this is one of those games? Why, throw a couple of darts at Souls games and smoosh their titles together! Okay, they’ve stopped short of calling it Elden Demon Souls: Nioh Dies Twice, but it’s in the same ballpark.
Let’s file away that cynicism, as Eldest Souls deserves better. It’s produced by Roki publishers, United Label, and while it’s the latest in an incredibly long line of pixel-art games, it’s one of the better ones. Animations have a silky flow, and the bosses are well-designed, looking appropriately grotesque and odd.
We’re assured that this is challenging, with your single ‘obsydian’ sword upgrading as you attempt to match the challenge of the Old Gods. You’re the one, last hope for saving the world, and – without you – they would be stomping about, scattering about apocalypses like confetti.
A Plague Tale: Innocence (Xbox Series X|S Edition)
There’s every chance that you neglected to play 2019’s “wait, where did that come from?” hit A Plague Tale: Innocence. Well, now you have a couple of reasons to give it a spin. The first is that its sequel, A Plague Tale: Requiem, has been announced for launch in 2022, so you’ve got time aplenty to prepare for it.
The second is that A Plague Tale: Innocence is getting the spit-and-rub treatment, with a lovely Series X|S release. That means the usual list: 4K resolution, 60fps and other visual improvements. If you’ve got yourself a Series X|S then this was already a bit lovely, so we may be looking at a game to demo your mates.
Is it worth playing? Mais, bien sur! Its stealth may have been a tad dull and muted, but this was an otherwise ravishing little action-narrative-stealth game. Set against the backdrop of a crumbling medieval France, you play children looking to survive the plague, rats, plague rats and evil adults, who are all looking to reduce your life expectancy. It’s got some lovely contrasts between the beautiful and the very, very depressing, and July’s release will only make those contrasts starker.
Orcs Must Die! 3
Near the top of the ‘franchises we’d forgotten about’ list is Orcs Must Die! We last got an iteration of this heir to Dungeon Keeper in 2012, which launched mere months after the first game in 2011. So, there’s been a nine year gap, which excuses us forgetting that the series existed.
But hol’ up, it’s easy to forget just how much fun the originals were. They were frantic tower-defence-y action games, with you plonking down siege weapons and traps, while chewing through waves of orc yourselves. Blood and quips rained down, and it was very much at its best with a friend.
Orcs Must Die! 3 amplifies everything, but chucks in some orc-inspiring additions. There’s a story mode, set twenty years after the original; daily challenges which pit you against the community; and some custom-made scenarios created to be near-unfinishable by the various designers at Robot Entertainment. And it wouldn’t be Orcs Must Die! without some ludicrous new weaponry, and Robot have doubled down on saws. If you want to turn your castle into a splatterhouse, build yourself some sawblade launchers.
Microsoft’s pledge to bring more goodies to Game Pass is already bearing fruit. The Ascent, Microsoft Flight Simulator and Cris Tales are all due for launch on their individual day ones, and those are only the ones we know about. Microsoft have a habit of tucking other games into our belt when we’re not looking.
Next month is the last of the dry summer months before the silly season starts, so don’t expect a glut of goodies in August. Still, we’re coyly making eyes at Hades and Psychonauts 2 across the Xbox dancefloor, and there are a few you may not be aware of – including In Sound Mind and Foreclosed – that are looking sultry too.
Let us know what you will be taking in. The comments are below.