Usually, I stick to AAA games. I’ve never been a huge fan of indies, which in my experience up to this point tended to over-promise and under-deliver, and I figure if I’m going to game for 30+ hours a week, that time is best-spent playing games with top-quality production values.

2018, however, has been an interesting beast – it has changed my mind on all of that because I’ve played games that I normally avoid… and thoroughly enjoyed them. The resulting experience has been educational in the extreme, and I thought I’d share it with you.

Every.

Single.

One.

Of these games is worth buying. Not only are they significantly cheaper than any AAA title, they’re way more satisfying in unexpected ways.

Oh, and these are all available on Steam, and I bought every one myself except for Pure Farming, which I received for free from the publisher for review.

On to the games!

Pure Farming 2018

R350

I put my hand up to review Pure Farming, thinking I’ve never tried a farming game before so what the hell. And when the local representative of the publisher sent me a code, try it I did, initially loathing the ridiculous realism of having to do *everything* myself, but eventually warming up to it.

The more I played, and the more those actions paid off in-game, the more I started to enjoy myself. I went from thinking “Oh my God 45 minutes to plough a field?!? And then irrigate/sow/fertilize it at another 45 minutes each?!? And I still have to harvest?!? You can’t be serious!” to “Sweet, here’s another field to do while I relax and listen to music.”

Entirely unexpected, this was, but it was only the start of my strange 2018.

Car Mechanic Simulator 2018

R219

After Pure Farming, I got a bee in my bonnet to try another simulation game, and around that time Car Mechanic Simulator 2018 came out. I bought it, and soon found myself whiling away my time diagnosing, repairing, refurbishing, and test-driving cars.

It, too, was profoundly relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable, to the point where I then bought the DLC which granted access to a bunch of brand-name cars. More relaxation and enjoyment ensued. I also came away from my time with the game feeling like I had actually learned something about cars!

House Flipper

R130

By now, I was feeling a lot more personal satisfaction from the games I was playing; the simulation bug had clearly bitten. So I went after my next fix; this time, it was House Flipper – yes, a game about renovating run-down houses and selling them for profit.

I spent my time cleaning up messy homes, painting rooms, installing appliances, demolishing and building walls , and once again, much fun was had. The game itself proved too easy, though, and before long I was swimming in cash, but the developers have been tweaking it since release and adding new features, and I’ve enjoyed the journey.

My Time at Portia

R170

Once I’d tired of painting houses, I happened to download the demo of My Time at Portia, a very cute Nintendo-esque Early Access game about being the resident crafter/builder in a cartoony fantasy town. The demo was so much fun that I bought the full game the same day, and proceeded to gather materials, build crafting tables, expand my workshop, and solve the town’s various problems for a solid four weeks.

Despite some clumsy combat and an annoying requirement to crawl through dungeons that weren’t a lot of fun for needed items, I stuck with it for just under 84 hours. In that time, the highly-committed developers released significant updates which enhanced the game and added useful functionality, something they are STILL doing. The most recent update came out today, with another one promised for later this month.

I only moved on because yet another weird simulation game grabbed my attention: PC Building Simulator.

PC Building Simulator

R130

Now things were getting ridiculous. A simulation game about building a PC?? I had to have it!

And have it I did. This game does exactly what it says on the box – it sets you up in your own PC-building business where you build and repair PCs for the customers that are sent your way via email. Your job is to accept the jobs, figure out what’s wrong with the PC (or just do the requested upgrade), and get it back to the customer within a time limit.

The core appeal is that it’s a fairly accurate simulation of building a PC, meaning you could actually learn a thing or two about the real-world process, just like with Car Mechanic Simulator. You’ll strip PCs down to their chassis by removing their components, buy replacement parts where necessary, and re-assemble them. It even lets you test them with a simulated 3D Mark benchmark and build your own dream machine from the extensive list of real-world parts.

It’s not 1:1 accurate with the real-world PC-building process, but it’ll definitely give a newbie a solid grounding on what’s expected.

This was also an early access game, and subsequent updates have added dual GPU setups, water-cooling, RGB lighting, and overclocking. Best of all the game uses real-world brand-name components, and the most recent manufacturer they’ve added is ASUS, with more to come.

While it got tedious after about 20 hours, PCBS was still a fantastic purchase and one I go back to every now and then to see the new stuff the devs keep adding. I just love the idea, and the execution has proven to be as good as I hoped it would be. I don’t even mind that it’s really just a big ad for the various manufacturers.

Factorio

R170

This game had long been on my radar, and boy was I right to be excited about it. Factorio is a crafting/survival game that’s also about building massive factory-like assembly lines that take raw materials from where they are, to various modules that assemble them into components for bigger things. Those components must then be ferried by conveyor belt to other nodes in the factory where they are assembled into useful items, like vehicles, turrets, computer circuits, ammo, and more.

Your job as the player is to create the most efficient assembly lines possible, while defending your factory from attack by the local fauna which isn’t too impressed with the pollution you’re creating. It’s a game with a clever environmental message, in other words.

The over-arching aim is to create a rocket with which to escape the alien planet you’ve crash-landed on. And holy crap is it a huge challenge! The creatures that attack are plentiful, and taking out the hives from which they spawn only serves to make the remaining creatures stronger over time thanks to a clever “evolution” feature that boosts their toughness the more hives you take out.

The end result is a game that made me feel very clever when things went right, and very stupid when they didn’t. The fun was in making sure everything was running just right and solving problems where they weren’t, and I absolutely adored my time with Factorio. Best R170 I think I’ve ever spent on a game.

Just a word on that price, though: the developers have committed to a “No sale, ever” policy, so if you’re holding off buying it until the price drops, you’ll be waiting forever. Just pull the trigger, I promise it’s worth the cash.

Subnautica

R150

Just when I thought I’d hit the pinnacle of my gaming year, along came Subnautica. I coughed up full price for it and plunged right in, and holy smokes was it amazing. And I mean that in a literal sense – I was gobsmacked at how bloody fantastic the game was and spent almost the entire 80+ hours I played just marvelling at the world I found myself immersed in (ba dum tiss). If it wasn’t the graphics I was loving, it was the excellent sound, the tense atmosphere, the logical storyline, or the sense of satisfaction at making progress towards my ultimate goal.

In Subnautica, you play as another unfortunate soul who crash-landed on an alien planet, and who must scavenge from the environment to build everything needed for an escape rocket. Except you’re on an almost all-water planet, and you must deal with a massive ocean that’s home to things that want to kill you, as well as the existential dread that inevitably comes over you as you plumb its deep, dark, unknown depths.

If you don’t like the ocean or the unknown, this game isn’t for you because it’ll give you the heebie jeebies. Taking a vulnerable sub down into an alien ocean where things just get darker and darker and the risk of finding something big and nasty was highly stressful for me, and I don’t suffer from Thalassophobia.

The first time I encountered one of those big nasties, a “reaper”, will live long in my memory. It was entirely unexpected because I didn’t know they even existed at that point or that what I was doing had put me in danger, and I shrieked like a little girl as I was caught and eaten by one. Quite literally, my heart pounded like a drum on a thrash metal track, my mouth went dry, and after I was done shrieking I had to walk away from the game for a few minutes.

But the overall process of assembling everything I needed for my escape rocket, building my base, exploring the unknown, and stumbling across revelations that gave context to why I was there and what I was doing, came together beautifully to make the entire experience utterly unforgettable. Subnautica is a four-year labour of love by its developers, and it shows.

SCUM

R130 (I paid R198 for the game and the supporter’s pack which gave me some in-game extras and the devs some extra cash)

The last weird, non-AAA game I’ve played and enjoyed this year is SCUM. It’s another survival/crafting game, except it’s set on a deserted island and stars you as a convict who’s been dropped off there for the amusement of a TV audience. It’s both single and multiplayer, so you can play alone or with friends (and strangers), but so far I’ve gone the SP route and am still enjoying it. I don’t trust other people enough to want to play this sort of game with them, certainly not while I learn its mechanics.

SCUM’s biggest USP is the fact that it lets you monitor your avatar’s biology in immense detail thanks to an embedded “BCU” – an electronic “biological control unit” that’s hooked into his body’s systems. It shows things like calorie intake and energy expenditure, the minerals and vitamins that have been consumed (or which are needed), how full his bladder, colon, intestines, and bowels are, his injury status, skills, and much more.

Don’t balance his calorie intake with his energy expenditure, and he’ll get fat or thin depending on which number is greater. Fill his bladder/bowels and he’ll need to have a wee or a poo (fun!), eat too much – or the wrong thing – and he’ll throw up. Don’t treat that wound and he’ll get an infection which will see his overall physical performance plummet and bring on eventual death. Practice a skill (boxing, melee fighting, shooting with rifles/handguns), see it improve. And that’s just for starters – there’s more planned as the game develops, apparently.

The BCU offers a lot of detail to delve into and exploit, almost like a game within a game. It’s not essential to do, because the gauges in the bottom left corner indicating stamina, health, energy, and endurance are all you need to really concern yourself with, but it’s a fascinating addition to this sort of game that sets SCUM apart from others in the genre.

I also really like SCUM’s core gameplay conceit: the BCU not only monitors the player’s vitals, but narratively is the mechanism whereby the TV show’s producers can re-animate dead prisoners with the BCU’s advanced electronics. This turns them into “puppets” (aka zombies) that can be remotely controlled or left alone to respond aggressively to basic stimuli, like sound. It’s a logical addition I was not expecting, but really appreciate as it fits the lore of the game world so smartly and seems to have great potential

But without a doubt my favourite feature of this game is the fact that I can chop anyone I kill into little pieces, use their bones to craft stuff, and turn their fleshier parts into steak and fat strips which I can then eat. There’s currently no penalty for eating human meat, and it’s immensely satisfying to take out a bothersome puppet and then chop them into their component parts and cook and eat them. Yum.

The game isn’t close to being finished, though, and the “end game” is really just the moment when you’ve scavenged a decent weapon and can take on other players and puppets head-on. But what’s there already, is a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to see how the developers take full advantage of the game’s “Ultra-violent Reality TV Show” setting.

Not The End

And that’s what I’ve been doing with my gaming time this year. I’ve also played other games – I am re-playing Tomb Raider 2013 right now, for instance, and have played more Deus Ex: Mankind Divided/Shadow of War/Sniper Elite 4/Just Cause 3 on and off – but it’s these indies that have taken up most of my time.

I regret nothing – every one of these has added richly to my 2018 and they are all well worth the cash being asked, which is very little compared to AAA games.

Bring on the rest of the year

And as all of this has only served to increase my appetite for weird, out-of-the-ordinary indie titles, the rest of my year’s looking pretty promising, too.

These next few games release soon, and I want every single one of them:

Insomnia: The Ark – This handcrafted sci-fi RPG looks promising!
Releases: 27 September

Plane Mechanic Simulator – Another unusual repair sim published by the weird-loving folks at PlayWay
Releases: “Coming Soon”

Cooking Simulator – Yup, I’ll get to prepare meals in this one, also from PlayWay
Releases: Q3 2018

Rapture Rejects – Watch the preview video and tell me this doesn’t look hilarious. This game is from the Cyanide and Happiness crew, so it’s pretty offsides. Sweet.
Releases: “2018-ish”

Rune Ragnarok – A reboot of an old game I played to death back in the day
Releases: “This Winter” (so the end of year here in SA)

I’m sure I’ll stumble across more games to want to play as the year progresses, but for now, these are the ones I want most.

I love being a gamer.