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12/15/2020

Top 111 PC Games, #60-51

60. Ys III: The Oath in Felghana (Nihon Falcom, 2005)

A remake of 1991's Wanderers from Ys, though it did away with the controversial rework into a sidescrolling platformer design and went back to the more fast-paced action Ys became known for.  They take the same engine from Ark of Napishtim and rework it substantially to further emphasize the combat, with some downright crazy, fast-paced platforming and combat that requires well-timed dodges, strikes and effective use of all your moves to survive, and actually encouraging you to blast through enemies as quickly as possible with cumulative attack, defense and experience bonuses.  And of course, the game's music is simply phenomenal, with a hard rock/metal bent to typical fantasy soundtracks.

59. Commander Keen in Goodbye Galaxy! (id Software, 1991)

The fifth and sixth parts of the Commander Keen series (though labeled as 4 and 5... it's complicated) were a big leap forward for not just platformers on the PC, but for the series itself.  Smooth-scrolling, fluid platforming action was almost unheard of in DOS games at the time (compare this to say, Duke Nukem 1 or the Mega Man DOS games - BIG difference!), and the level of graphical detail was sublime and imaginative, looking like a cartoon on your computer.  Many of Keen's trademark elements return - the stun gun, the pogo stick and tons of collectibles - but the smoother controls and new capabilities like climbing up poles, unlocking rooms with keycards and mantling up ledges made its gameplay both more fun and more complex than previous entries.  He may not be as well-known as Sonic or Mario, but Keen was the closest thing the PC platform had for a good, long while.

58. Symphony of War: The Nephilim Saga (Dancing Dragon Games, 2022)

Another example of a game clearly inspired by classics of the genre (Fire Emblem and Ogre Battle in particular), but which ends up being so well-made that it stands out and becomes a fantastic title in itself.  Case in point, you move across the map with your squads (consisting of up to nine units of varying classes), capturing towns, utilizing strongholds and terrain to give themselves an advantage in skirmishes, and exploring characters through mid-battle dialog scenes. Battles get surprisingly large in scale (sometimes overwhelmingly so), though you get powers to do things like grant units extra turns or deal damage over a large area to help speed things up or get yourself out of a jam.  A wonderful and engrossing strategy RPG.

57. Master of Orion II: Battle At Antares (Simtex, 1996)

An MS-DOS 4X title that has retained a sizable following to this day, and it's easy to see why once you begin playing it.  There are 13 predefined playable races, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, and you can even create your own by picking out a handful of positive and negative traits.  From there, the gameplay is fairly simple in concept - expand your territory to new planets, establish colonies to harvest resources, research new technologies, build fleets and armies of ground troops, and eventually conquer all the other races vying for control of the galaxy.  Of course, it's never as easy as it sounds - a lot of careful resource management and calculated risks have to be made, random disasters can throw a wrench into your plans at inopportune moments, and if you're a true micromanagement fiend you can even construct your own custom warships and take direct command of every battle your forces get into, adding a lot more to keep track of but also letting you pull off some improbable victories once you're good enough.

56. Shadowrun: Dragonfall/Hong Kong (Harebrained Schemes, 2014/2015)

The second and third games in the rebooted Shadowrun franchise, and easily my favorite ones so far, expanding on everything the original brought to the table while losing nothing that made it great.  The story is nothing short of brilliant, bringing together a cast of diverse and complex characters to solve the mystery of their friend's death and the underlying conspiracy behind it.  Throughout the game, every choice you make seems to be the wrong one, making you new enemies and seemingly digging you deeper into a pit you can't escape from, while the combat only gets more intense with enemies bringing out bigger guns, setting up nastier traps and summoning bigger monsters to get in your way.  Stellar stuff all around, and a perfect example of how to do a grim, atmospheric game experience right.

55. Ultima VII Part 2: the Serpent Isle (Origin Systems, 1993)

The direct followup to Ultima VII (and the spinoff game Ultima Underworld II), Serpent Isle was also a callback to the franchise's earliest days, returning to worlds not seen since Ultima 1 and showing a world very different and considerably more troubled than the Britannia we've come to know.  The stakes were higher too; not just with the looming threat of the Guardian and his underlings, but a cosmic imbalance is causing reality itself to slowly unravel, adding considerably to your woes.  Unfortunately the game was also the first to really suffer from the EA buyout, as the world feels much more barren and the latter half in particular very rushed and definitely not up to the series' high standards in design.  Nevertheless, the story is captivating and the solid engine of 7 is tuned up in quite a few ways, making it another very worthwhile Ultima adventure.

54. Wildermyth (Worldwalker Games, 2021)

Plenty of games have tried for a heavily randomized RPG experience; usually plot-light roguelikes or just having randomly generated dungeons, equipment parameters, and so forth with the same basic story as a backdrop.  Wildermyth goes a step further, attempting to emulate tabletop gaming and generate a new narrative each time you play.  Player input does influence the proceedings, though - you can take risks to get rewards or be punished with penalties for failure, form rivalries or romances between characters, and even mid-battle this doesn't stop - if a character's HP drops to zero, they can sacrifice themselves to the enemy for one last strike, to boost all allies' stats or even survive to fight another day, albeit with a permanent injury like losing a limb.  The underlying gameplay itself is also quite solid (and a bit reminiscent of XCOM), having the player explore territory, gather resources and forage (or forge) new equipment to counter a constantly-escalating enemy force.

53. Heroes of Might and Magic III (New World Computing, 1999)

Might and Magic was a prominent dungeon crawling franchise from the mid-80s to the early 2000s, and while relatively popular in its time, most people know it today from the offshoot series Heroes of Might and Magic. A fantasy themed 4X franchise where one recruits heroes, builds up troops, uncovers hidden treasures and resources, and eventually seeks to conquer all of their opponents through turn based combat.  There was definitely no shortage of single player content with seven (!) playable campaigns, but the real draw was of course its multiplayer support, letting players compete against one another in long-term online battles.

52. Ion Fury (Voidpoint, PC/Linux/Switch/PS4/XBone)

The prequel to the 2016 flop "Bombshell" but thankfully it succeeds in every way its predecessor failed, bringing back the Build Engine with all the panache and clever design that made games like Duke Nukem and Blood great in the first place.  Fast-paced action in surprisingly realistic environments (well, as much as a twenty-four year old engine can muster, at least) with a huge number of interactive objects, secrets to find, clever enemy designs, tons of references to old 3D Realms games and a cool wisecracking protagonist, as well as some new features for the engine like climbable ladders and alt-fire for almost every weapon.  It may not be the modern era's prettiest shooter, but I was having too much fun with it to care.  Ion Fury is the long-lost cousin of all the classic '90s shooters.

51. Star Control II (aka Free Stars: the Ur-Quan Masters) (Toys for Bob, 1992)

A beloved classic for sure, Star Control II is an amalgamation of the open-ended exploration of Starflight with top-down dogfighting battles based on one of the very first video games ever made (Spacewar!).  Set in a future where the brutal Ur-Quan empire has enslaved a large portion of the galaxy and Earth is trapped under an impenetrable force field, you play as a small crew of humans aboard a skeletal ancient spaceship and must travel the galaxy in search of resources and allies to recruit, eventually taking the fight to the Ur-Quan.  Fun stuff, but the game cements its place in the hierarchy of space games with its strong tracker soundtrack, imaginative aliens and a constant offbeat sense of humor, helping greatly in offsetting the slow, tedious early stages of the game where you're mostly scouring star systems one-by-one for resources to deck out your ship.  The game also got a 3DO port which has since had its source code released, allowing for enhanced ports on PC that add in the enhanced music and voice acting of that version among numerous other features.