Early access is a double edged sword, both for developers and for players. For devs, early access is a gamble; while it’s an avenue for drawing additional revenue it can backfire if your game isn’t ready for primetime. Leave a bad taste in your audience’s mouth by releasing too early and you may never recover. And for consumers, early access makes the risk of buying any brand new, untested product even steeper. These games are explicitly incomplete, and there’s no guarantee they’ll ever properly reach a finished stage of production.

But fear not, we’re here to mitigate some of that risk. We’ve rounded up some of the most polished, most entertaining early access games currently making their way through Steam. Even if they never produce a proper 1.0 release, the product is well worth the price tag even in its current embryonic state.

They Are Billions

early access roundup - they are billionsStill very early in development, They Are Billions already possesses a powerfully addictive core. The central gameplay loop, constructing a thriving township and harvesting the environment for resources to push yourself further along its limited but enticing tech path, already provides a roguelike sense of challenge and accomplishment.

Even after a series of punishing failures you’ll find yourself sucked back in for another run (or guiltily tweaking the difficulty to make victory, if not easy, possible). And with a slate of exciting features on the horizon, notably a campaign mode, They Are Billions is a game with a very promising future.

Empires of the Undergrowth

early access roundup - empires of the undergrowthAnother real-time strategy game of sorts, Empires of the Undergrowth has more in common with Dungeon Keeper than Command and Conquer. Command your armies of worker ants to defend your queen and construct a sprawling underground complex for your colony to flourish, while fending off the aggressions of other insects, arachnids, and rival ants.

Empires of the Undergrowth is everything you love about town management sims split into two distinct levels, the surface and the subterranean lair where your build your armies and expand your secret empire. While the developers are promising more mission content for the full release, there’s already a number of fully fleshed out missions, complete with unique insects, music, and narration, and a short “formicarium” story mode.

Slay the Spire

early access roundup - slay the spire

Slay the Spire is an example of the sort of game that is very much in vogue in Early Access at the moment (and across Steam at large), a hybrid of another genre with a CCG conceit. But in Slay the Spire’s case, that is very much a strength rather than a weakness. It takes the best bits of roguelikes, the tension of impending permanent death and that “one more run” mentality that’s meant many a sleepless night, and blends them expertly with turn-based, card fueled combat. The resulting cocktail is as addictive as the best digital CCGs and with over 200 cards and 100 items already implemented, presents plenty of depth and replayability even in its current, nascent state.

Northgard

early access roundup - northgardReal-time strategy games are experiencing a bit of a renaissance on Steam at the moment (look no further than one of our previous entries, They Are Billions) and Northgard is a prime example of why they’re finding a toehold again after such a long hiatus.

Northgard is the story of a Viking tribe far from home, trying to survive amidst the perils of a mysterious, unwelcoming new world. Players struggle to eke out an existence and establish a settlement in the face of scavenging dire wolves, armies of soulless undead, and the killing cold of relentless winter.

Northgard isn’t a game that takes a tremendous number of risks or that’s looking to reinvent a genre; instead, it’s a highly polished, extremely well executed strategy game that iterates on its predecessors without abandoning the tried-and-tested foundations that made RTS so wildly popular in their heyday.  

Secrets of Grindea

early access roundup - secrets of grandiaSecrets of Grindea is a game years in the making, and a dream come true for late SNES, Secret of Mana-era RPG fans. It takes the core of those early direct control, isometric 16-bit RPGs and layers on a ton of modern systems and contemporary design sensibilities. RPG systems (including an open-class mechanic that lets you build bespoke characters and blend elements of martial and magical prowess as you see fit), pets, thousands of items to hunt and collect, and town-building elements combine with charming 16-bit style graphics to make a complete, wildly attractive package that is constantly evolving as development continues.

The game is already robust enough to justify its $14.99 asking price, and continues to improve with each of its many updates.

 

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Alan Bradley Author
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Alan’s been a games journalist for over a decade, and fighting for the user since before Tron was a twinkle in his motherboard’s eye. He loves dreams about dragons, speedy race cars, and the glitter of C-beams in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. Find him @chapelzero on Twitter for lengthy conversation about CRPGs of the early 90s and to debate the merits of the serial comma.
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Alan Bradley Author
,
Alan’s been a games journalist for over a decade, and fighting for the user since before Tron was a twinkle in his motherboard’s eye. He loves dreams about dragons, speedy race cars, and the glitter of C-beams in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. Find him @chapelzero on Twitter for lengthy conversation about CRPGs of the early 90s and to debate the merits of the serial comma.
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