Unknown Pleasures: the best of Steam’s rest this week

Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures, our weekly selection of the 10 best under-reported new games on Steam – all of which have been released within the past seven days. If you find yourself paralysed by choice about what to buy or play, please allow me to be your unparalyser.

This week: Lovecraft on wheels, Life Is Strange, Inside and Superhot homages and the bizarre world of achievement farming.

Perhaps not the strongest week this week, as awareness that E3 is currently raging seems to have elicited appropriate caution from many developers – there have been far fewer new games than usual. This is most sensible indeed. Never release a game in E3 week, unless you want to guarantee it will receive no coverage whatsoever. Apart from this column on this website, of course. Do as I say, not as I do.

Nevertheless, I’ve filtered through to find ten sparkly new delights for you. Also new-new-new: trailers instead of screenshots, so you can get a better sense of what’s what, plus US and UK prices for each game too.

Howard Phillips Lovecar

($0.99/£0.79, Early Access)

Devil Daggers vs GTA vs Cthulhu. A top-down drive’n’shoot ’em up in which you mow down cod-Lovecraftian beasties of mounting size and monstrousness. Your survival is measured in handfuls of minutes, with ammo starkly limited in addition to your fragile health. The sudden reveals of titanic tentacle-beasts are wonderful, especially first time round, but I think it’s the sound design that really makes this – the thunderous and chilling mounting noise as your situation ever worsens.

A fine example of a simple idea made triumphant thanks to a delicate balance of style and tension. Perhaps a little one-note, but it’s an early access game so hopefully we’ll see more flesh on its bones over time. In any case, it’s yer actual bargain at 79p/99c.

Gray Skies, Dark Waters

($6.99/£4.99)

Something, perhaps, to help pass the time while we wait for the newly-announced Life Is Strange prequel series. Mostly 2D chat-o-adventure Gray Skies is transparently inspired by the slice of teenage life vs mystery serial approach (or My So Called Life vs early Twin Peaks, if you prefer) taken by LIS. Slavishly so, even, from the soppy tones of its protagonist to the wistful reminiscences about childhood while rifling through cupboards. It’s rough around the edges – the glassy-eyed characters and the irritating echo effect to denote thought rather than spoken dialogue are particular misfires – and it fails to create compelling storyline hooks before defaulting to ambient domestic exploration. (This is something LIS makes work, by grabbing us straightaway with an apparent murder-mystery and a touch of the supernatural, and only moving onto noodling around once we are invested in the story and characters).

Even so, the observational, wistful dialogue has something poetic to it, and there’s real charm to family interactions that feel based on something real. The hand-drawn background art is evocative too. Gray Skies needs focus, but I think it might understand the heart of LIS, not just the skin.

Phobia

($5.99/£4.79)

A big ol’ pile of horror tropes, with a deeply messy English translation to boot, first-person haunted house exploration/shooting game Phobia shouldn’t get away with it, but it kinda does. As well as recycling every stereotype in the book – ghostly shapes, creepy doll faces, self-closing doors, endlessly looping gramophone records, torture-basement, and on and on – it’s done its homework on atmosphere. Light/dark and menacing sound design give it a genuinely creepy atmosphere, which is sustained even despite its crazily scatty pacing.

It’ll bounce from long, tense treks to SUDDEN WEREWOLF ATTACK or CAGES FULL OF TWITCHING CORPSES in a heartbeat. Even so, I felt real dread as I moved to each new room, and, in between the tropes, it does pull off some visual imagination of its own. Like I say: Phobia probably shouldn’t work, but it made me appropriately unsettled despite being so wildly uneven.

Zup! 5

($0.99£/£0.79)

I just fell down a rabbit hole I never knew existed, and found myself in the world of Steam achievement farming games. Whether the Zup physics-puzzle games exist merely as a vessel for earning thousands of achievements for doing very little or the thousands of achievements for doing very little are a wrapper designed to entice people into buying and playing the Zup physics-puzzle games is a mystery we may never solve. When I first fired up Zup! 5, I was convinced it was either some sort of scam or entirely broken, as it showered me in dozens of achievements simply for loading it up, clicking on the menu screen or, at first, clicking in the middle of a level to make something explode, a ball automatically land somewhere else and the next level unlock. The top right-hand side of the screen is a waterfall of achievement notifications – delightful if you are invested in such things, I’m sure, but for those of you who (like me) are mystified by the purpose of Steam achievements, it’s weird noise.

However! It turns out that the game beneath all this is a very pleasant set of physics challenges, about activating exploding blocks in the right order and with the right timing to carry the ball to the level exit. Portal-esque, er, portals come into play too, and though complexity mounts it remains relaxing rather than fiddly. All told it’s a short but sweet little figure-it-out-yourselfer that comes across as more throwaway and cynical than it is because of that cheevo spam.

Trapped Summoner


($4.99/£3.89)

Very competent if unexceptional (so far) JRPG meets jumping-free platformer, with a SNES/GBA aesthetic. It also has just a little Heroes of Might and Magic-style tactical unit placement during its turn-based battles, with a big emphasis on melee front/ranged middle/mages rear. It’s quite a polished affair, and mercifully quite minimal on the dialogue compared to so many of its genre-mates, although I think it’s needlessly heavy on timing-based avoidance of spike traps and spinning sawblades from very early on. It’s not my personal cup of tea, but it’s got a good range of classes and skills to tinker with, and the summoning-based party system is neat, so I reckon this’ll scratch a few 16-bit itches for those that still have them.

Adjacency

($2.99/£1.99)

Any minimalist puzzler has a hard act to follow after last week’s divine Lines, but Adjaceny certainly makes a decent fist of it. Also numberless, wordless and based around filling shapes with colour, but rather than being in competition with computer-controlled opponents, here you’re essentially in competition with yourself. Spreading one colour to adjacent shapes inherently involves removing other colours from them – but the twist is that each and every colour must be spread to their allocated cells. A great deal of thought has gone into creating smart but not exasperating challenges involving replacing a colour without actually eradicating the entirety of the colour from the screen, while there’s a surprising sense of journey in carrying one single splodge of, say, yellow, all the way to the most distant end of the scene.

Possibly a little too aesthetically functional for its own good – a sense of beauty was what helped Lines to be such a joy – but it’s a strong puzzle concept, well-realised.

Delay


($1.99/£1.59)

It’s a bit of a week for unashamed homages, with Delay wearing its heart on its sleeve for slo-mo shooter SUPERHOT. This essentially reconfigures the time-only-moves-when-you-move concept as a side-on 2D platformer/shooter. If it sounds brazen, it is, but there’s a a surprising degree of difference nonetheless. For a start, you can see all your foes at once, so there’s more in the way of making a plan of action that you have to execute perfectly, rather than rely on reflex in any way. And while SUPERHOT is broadly a charge forwards, this entails navigating a vertical space that much more, with double-jump platforming being crucial to Delay’s bullet-dodging survival in the way strafing is in its great inspiration.

It’s a good time, although my chief complaint is that it presumes its audience is as starry-eyed for SUPERHOT as it is, and as such ramps the challenge SUPERHIGH almost immediately.

Art Of Gravity

($0.99/£0.79)

A physics puzzler that’s half state-of-zen and half tension-headache precision. Click on one of its blocks to specify which direction one of a very limited number of balls will then strike it from, and if you’ve done it right a chain reaction of physics will see all the other blocks in the level shatter. Raise and lower walls, use blocks whose shattered pieces can demolish neearby blocks, or bounce in unexpected ways off strange shapes with stranger physics properties. Glorious voxel explosions of colour are the most potent rewards, but it’s also got a nice line in dawning moments of realisation when its obtuse internal logic suddenly becomes crystal clear. Smart, pretty, different and simultaneously relaxing and stressful. Perhaps that essence was the reason the developer named themselves ‘Hamster On Coke.’

World of One


($6.99/£4.99)

Limbo/Inside-style black and whiteish puzzle platformer, made by someone who’s almost certainly a big Neil Gaiman fan. The hook is that it’s all set on a small world, with the curve of the landscape visible at all times, the planet spinning as you run across it, creating a simultaneous sense of coziness and surreality. It’s a striking effect, and not purely superficial – you can use the planetary curve to increase the distances of your jumps, if you get enough of a run up that what starts as jumping uphill becomes gracefully sailing downhill. It’s a physics puzzler that makes the physics part of thematic conceit, essentially.

The blandly maudlin dialogue, though scant, does World of One few favours, and it goes a bit too big on spike traps far too soon, but it’s nice to look at and the circular landscape lends it a feel all of its own. Certainly stands out from the platformer crowd.

Pilam Sky

($7.99/£5.59, Early Access)

Russian Hot air balloon battler/roguelite/trading game with a janky English translation. That’s a shame since Pilam Sky itself is rather charming, a comic steampunk affair involving men with oversized moustaches jousting in the skies. Your balloon lobs slow to reload cannonballs from each side, naval combat sim-style, while a selection of pikes and anchors also enable melee damage – complete with little gusts of escaping helium if you pop a hole in an enemy’s canvas. Combat is manic and genteel all at the same time, what with a balloon not being the most manoeuvrable of aircraft. Between fights, you spend gold on upgrades – you know the drill, but it’s a solid enough spur to push onward.

Surprisingly though, given the awful English, it’s the tone that stands out – there’s a very agreeable jolliness to this. It’s very much early access, so its upgrade and resource trading systems are rather under-nourished, but if it stays in active development it should be quite a treat in a few months.

Pick of the week is… Howard Phillips Lovecar.

No contest, really: it pulls off its entirely stupid concept marvellously. Car + shotgun + giant ancient horrors is a winning formula.

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28 Comments

  1. PeroColera says:

    OMG Alec, this is a great idea! How do we get on this list? We have been out on Steam EA for a few weeks.

    • Alec Meer says:

      Games considered for each week’s Unknown Pleasures need to be have been released within the past seven days, I’m afraid.

      • PeroColera says:

        Yep just noticed that in the article above… Back to clawing our way out :) But still – an awesome idea, particularly for us indies.

        • floogles says:

          Polite enough not to self promote here, but I think I found your game – Sonders.

          In EAccess but looks very interesting.
          link to store.steampowered.com

        • ogopogo says:

          Love the concept you got going with that — many games inevitably play out like “Groundhog Day” at times… so yeah, why not just lampshade & roll with it?
          One of the Dead Risings had a fun take on the idea but it still seems pretty underutilized. Good to finally see someone try to make use of it in a smarter context, your game sounds like being trapped in one of the better episodes of TNG.

  2. Blastaz says:

    This week has been a grand strategy bent for me:
    Medieval Kingdom Wars – very bare bones atm but looks promising and very pretty. Sort of like TW but combines a grand strategy map with a base building RTS like age of empires as the “battle map”

    And Oriental Empires – now really quite developed ancient china based 4X. It started on EA some time ago, but Alec’s rules don’t apply to me!

  3. Morph says:

    So can anyone explain the purpose of achievement farming?

    • Eery Petrol says:

      No. But maybe something related. Good achievements show players a steady progression of increasingly difficult challenges to be found within the game. I hunt that kind of achievements (not so much the ones that come easy). Once you do, it becomes useful to put your achievement custom showcase on your Steam community page; it shows your total achievements, your amount of perfect games (100% achievements) and your average achievement completion rate. The first I don’t use, but I guess if you challenge yourself to get that as high as possible, you will need to get achievement farming games. I don’t. Instead, I try to up my 100% completion rate as a motivation to get the most out of games I really love, and I also try to keep my average game completion rate above 40%, to prevent myself from buying game after game after game without really enjoying them (my goal used to be 50%, but in typing this I realise that hasn’t been realistic in a long time :'( ).

    • Premium User Badge

      Captain Narol says:

      Yes, it’s quite simple.

      Achievements = Skinner Box

      More details here, if you want to dig :

      link to en.wikipedia.org

    • Baines says:

      Numbers go up.

      Achievement farming is something that people predicted back when Microsoft introduced its Achievement system for the Xbox. Back then you ended up with people creating guides for boosting your “Gamer Score” quickly with minimal money.

      It is hardly a surprise that years later some PC devs would realize that they could encourage a certain crowd of people to buy a cheap title that floods the user with hundreds of achievements.

      • Morph says:

        I was thinking it would have some actual worth, I guess I’ve never looked at someone’s Steam profile too closely.

      • April March says:

        Which is amazing, because on Xbox your achievements cause a meaningless number to go up. On Steam, there’s not even a meaningless number to go up. People do it even without any easily-shown pseudo-reward for it.

        • spleendamage says:

          @April March – Well, there’s always a 3rd party fix for everything: link to astats.astats.nl

          • durrbluh says:

            With the Steam Achievement Manager app, I managed to break free of the addiction. The healing can begin.

        • Baines says:

          There are meaningless numbers even with Steam.

          For the easiest bragging, you can set one of the showcases on your profile page to be the Achievement Showcase. The Achievement Showcase displays your six rarest achievements, your total achievement count, the number of games in which you’ve obtained all achievements, and the percentage of achievements you’ve obtained in your games.

          When you unlock an achievement, that information is posted into all your friends’ activity feeds.

  4. shinkshank says:

    Pilam Sky, huh. Reminds me of the venerable Hammerfight, except a little jankier and with more stuff than just whackin’ stuff with a rock on a rope.

  5. InternetBatman says:

    I hadn’t seen this series before. It’s a great idea and I love it!

  6. seroto9 says:

    Howard Phillips must have a bit of an ego to name his game that. It’s not like he’s Sid Meier.

    • Saarlaender39 says:

      “Howard Phillips must have a bit of an ego to name his game that. It’s not like he’s Sid Meier.”
      ——————
      Erm,…not sure if serious or kidding, but,…you do know, that Howard Phillips is the forename (usually abbreviated to H.P.) of Lovecraft!?
      You know – the famous horror author…H.P.Lovecraft.
      To which Howard Phillips Lovecar is nothing more but a pun.
      Yeah,…I’m sure you knew that…!?

  7. welverin says:

    How can something be a platformer without jumping, without jumping you can’t platform!

    p.s. Bionic Commando gets a pass, because it has an alternative to jumping.

  8. Baines says:

    SUPERHOT is not a “time-only-moves-when-you-move” game. Time is always moving, even when the player gives no inputs.

    While often overlooked, this isn’t a minor nitpick. It is a central element of SUPERHOT, the element that stops SUPERHOT from being a variable speed WEGO. Games like Ronin and Wazhack are “time-only-moves-when-you-move,” SUPERHOT is something else.

    • April March says:

      I feel like even if time did in fact not move when you didn’t in SUPERHOT it’d still be significantly different from Ronin et al.

  9. April March says:

    Howard Philips Lovecar looks great, but is there a difference between the Steam version and the PWYW version on itch.io?

    • Thotep says:

      Hey April March, HPL author here. The Steam version has resolution changing etc., incoming controller support and (later) gameplay changes & improvements. The itch.io version will remain as it is.

  10. Gomer_Pyle says:

    They way you describe Zup! 5 makes it sound like Achievement Unlocked.
    (A flash game from Armor games, iirc.)

  11. capntao says:

    Stylistically Pilam Sky reminds me a lot of my beloved Hammerfight although the PS dev insists this is not intentional. this led me to find out that the Hammerfight dev is working on a new title: Highfleet, which I assume is of interest to at least some of the RPS community:

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