Indie roundup: Death Crown, Rift Racoon & The Hand of Merlin

Smaller studios and publishers continue to delight us with interesting titles to play and enjoy, and we’re checking out three more today. Death Crown from Co5monaut, Eastasiasoft’s Rift Racoon and the PC-exclusive The Hand of Merlin are all featured.

Death Crown

Death Crown was originally released on Steam, but is now available for all major consoles as well, with versions for Xbox, PlayStation and the Nintendo Switch. Having previously played it briefly on a PC, we tried out the PlayStation 4 version, which also works on the PS5.

When it comes to “what you remember most about a game”, the answer for Death Crown is undeniably its art style. Featuring black and white/monochrome visuals drawn in a 1 bit style, this is a game that takes the nostalgic gamers in us back to the early days of videogames in the 1970s. They’ve blended the old with the new though, by applying this look to more detailed visuals than you’d have back in the day and even carrying it over to the animated cutscenes in the game. It’s minimalist, but certainly more striking than the blocky examples from the original era.

death crown2

Looking beyond the visual style, Death Crown is a real time strategy game where you play as Death, commanding your legions and fighting against the kingdom of humanity. Why? Because their king has chosen to defy death by stealing the Death Crown and thus plunging the two realms into a war – yes, this 1bit game has a narrative as well.

The gameplay itself is extremely accessible, with a short 5 to 10 minute tutorial that explains all of the basics, from making your fortune by mining to spending those resources on barracks, troops and defensive towers. Units can also be upgraded, but the core mechanics never get very complex and the game has that ‘accessible yet engaging’ feel of a mobile title at times. The fast-paced gameplay certainly adds to that feeling, but on top of that simple gameplay formula it’s the presentation and theme that really makes this one a memorable experience.

Rift Racoon

Eastasiasoft is continuing their recent run of putting out retro-flavored indie titles with Rift Racoon, which launched on Steam earlier but is now available for all major current consoles. With 8/16-bit style visuals, it’s a challenging platformer starring a racoon with the ability to teleport himself mid-air through a total of 50 levels.

To make things a little easier you can play in the ‘casual’ mode, which offers the same challenges but gives you two free restarts in case you fail. Dangers that face you are the usual spikes, saws and infinite pits, and the level design usually hits that sweet spot between challenging and frustrating, where you want to keep going despite a dozen deaths that may or may not feel fair to you.

rift racoon

Levels get progressively harder, but the trophies come way before you reach the end – which is a bit of a shame since it will keep people from pushing through to the end but I suppose it’s good news for trophy hunters. Some of the trophies relate to finding diamonds in each level, which if not found can also be a good reason to replay a level you tackled earlier, for a bit of replay value.

Despite its teleportation mechanic Rift Racoon doesn’t bring a lot of innovation to the genre, but if you enjoy similar games you’ll have fun playing this one as well. It’s a budget title that’s certain to provide a few hours of fun for fans of challenging platformers willing to push on, or about 30 minutes to an hour for those looking for a few easy trophies.

The Hand of Merlin (Early Access)

Sometimes appearances can be deceiving, and that’s certainly true for The Hand of Merlin, which is being published by Versus Evil with development done by Room-C Games and Croteam. What first looked like a typical King Arthur-inspired role playing game is actually a turn-based RPG with rogue-lite influences. And not just that – it also thematically ties horror influences into the King Arthur tales.

The story and gameplay are being designed by some of the people behind games like Serious Sam 4 and The Talos Principle, who were inspired by the likes of XCOM and The Banner Saga for the gameplay mechanics in The Hand of Merlin. The game just launched into Early Access, where it’s scheduled to stay for 4 to 6 months.

the hand of merlin

Our first hours with the Early Access version have certainly left us impressed with how seamless the traditional turn-based RPG formula has been tied into roguelite mechanics. In the game you’ll travel between all kind of alternate dimensions in which the environment might look familiar, but the rules of the game might have changed dramatically – with new people in power and new dangers to face. Merlin is a constant between all of this, as he is a protector of all realms who is charged with a balancing act of sorts.

The story is well written and told as well, and includes voiceovers to help deliver the narrative. Visually the game reminded me a lot of Pathfinder: Kingmaker, though with slightly less polish in terms of animation, visual effects and vibrancy of the game map. That might all change during Early Access though, along with optimizations in the gameplay and balancing tweaks – these are expected though, because The Hand of Merlin’s current version is already fairly complete in terms of content and we assume a lot of the upcoming work will be about polish.

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