Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures, wherein we pick 10 of the best lower-profile new videogames released on Steam over the past seven days. Can’t decide what to play next? Unknown Pleasures is there for you, through thick and thin, through good times and bad, through weeks when only hidden object games are released and weeks like this, where there’s a wild variety of new delights.
This time: refugee simulation, drowned cyberpunk, hyper-Breakout and being stalked by Henry VIII.
A puzzle/adventure hybrid whose central conceit is restoring light to a drowned future-city with some lovely Blade Runner rain. A dodgy translation and rather changeable internal logic hold it back from greatness, but only just. An atmosphere I would describe as cyberpunk whimsy and puzzles which manage to be thoughtful without, so far, being overly frustrating about it lend Flood Of Light a Good Vibe. It’s very pretty too, evoking a mid-point between Flashback and Inside, though the stilted character animations could do with a less puppety rethink. Sweet, though.
Gently batshit rejiggering of Arkanoid/Breakout, which throws some basic pew-pew spaceship combat into the mix, as well as a wee bit of Space Invadersish bomb-dodging. It only turns shooty if a block you strike with your ball happens to release a temporary power-up – in the main it’s familiar brick-breaking that gets very carried away with the explosion effects. When a gun power-up does arrive, it quickly becomes a whole new kind of frantic, as some blocks you’re suddenly randomly shooting will release enemies.
It’s a bit of a hot mess from a visual design point of view, but underneath that Scrollonoid’s a solid remix of a game I lost entire school summer holidays to in the early 90s.
($6.99/£4.99, Early access)
I’ve run away from a lot of scary videogame monsters in my time, but being terrified of a short, tubby dude in a renaissance wig is a new one on me. This is how it felt to be Anne Boleyn, I guess. Goodbye My King is a first-person exploro-puzzle game meets dodge-the-monster affair, analgous in the broadest possible way to something like Amnesia or even a combatless Resident Evil 7. It’s not truly a horror game, but your chief challenge is to find your way around a castle full of locked rooms, finding clues and fixing switches, while dodging the brutality of a violent, bewigged imposter who’s stolen your throne. Initially, I laughed when the squat little king came at me, but a swift thump to the face and a return to the start soon had me fearing even the briefest sight of him.
Goodbye My King is pretty buggy right now – early access, see – with a ropey UI and some not terribly inspired door unlocking challenges, but it certainly has something. It’s fascinating to discover that it’s the fact of being chased while helpless that creates a sense of tension and fear. I.e., it doesn’t have to be something with snakes for a face after all.
($1.99/£1.39 , Early Access)
Diablo parsed through an old school first-person turn-based RPG, then carved and sliced into minimalism. There’s only ever one way to go – forwards – and one way to attack – er, press ‘Attack’ – as you navigate a forest filled with assorted pop-up monsters. There’s a shower of loot whenever you win, and though you can tunnel deep into the stats if you want, it offers an easy way of deciding what to equip and what to stash until you reach a shop, by tagging every item with a big level number. A number 6 is broadly better than a number 3, so don’t sweat the small stuff.
It makes it all work, in that it becomes a game of resource management more than of combat – do you have the attack power to win, do you have the health to survive, plus there’s a weirdo but effective system whereby you can, say, either equip a watermelon for a defence bonus or eat it to restore health. Lots of careful balancing going on underneath a superficially very simple surface, I think. Sadly it’s not as charming as it thinks it is, either in its MS Paintish art or its repetitive and occasionally off-colour gags, but I can forgive that for its canny reinterpretations of ARPG conventions. In pretty decent shape for an early access game, too.
John was already fairly positive about this voxel-aesthetic, 90s-style FPS last week, so I’ll be brief here. I didn’t like it as much as he did, to be honest – while it’s got the speed and the surrealistic maze-design of Doomlikes down pat, I’m not sure it’s got much atmosphere or even personality to speak of. The look is too crude for its own good, and the music is hateful. It lives or dies on whether the act of shooting feels good however, and, yeah, it does. If you wanna shoot stuff in a 90s stylee (a word itself last used in the 90s), it’ll just about scratch that itch, but don’t expect anything more from it.
I’m inevitably reminded of that other recent throwback shooter, Strafe, which I think has a little more going for it than Gorescript despite its rather grindy structure. But I include Gorescript here a) because John dug it so that likely means a number of you will too and b) because there’s usually a heavy platformer/roguelike/puzzle emphasis in Unknown Pleasures, and I like to be varied when I can.
A simluation/roleplaying game about a Syrian refugee. There are inherent similarities to Cart Life, in that how you spend your pittance is a stressful balancing act. You need to eat, you need to learn more English, you need downtime to stay sane, you need to constantly spend on the subway to get to work and language school and anywhere else, but at the same time your wife and child, still stranded in an overseas camp, desperately need money in order to come join you.
You are also living in a country that distrusts or even openly hates you, trying to make do in the face of abuse or, almost worse, simple dismissal of everything from your right to work to your right to be addressed as anything other than ‘refugee.’ However, 21 Days stops short of being preachy, and instead gently focuses on the emotional experience of trying to make it all work. Not just in dialogue – letters from your scared wife, conversations with a few sympathetic souls – but in the simple, constant stress of trying to fit everything into a finite amount of hours and with a finite amount of cash. How difficult it is to make do – let alone to consistently do the right thing, both for yourself and others.
21 Days is quite special – I worry that I’ve written above makes it sound unappealingly worthy, but please take my word for it – this is a hugely evocative and compulsive roleplaying game about our own world.
Stretching against the limits of what Unknown Pleasures is abstractly meant to do, given that this is a quite expensive-looking shooter/adventurer from the gaggle of ex-Painkiller folks who made NecroVision and Deadfall Adventures (we’ve even posted about it before), but I’m not sure we’ll get around to covering it otherwise. Plus, I’m curious. It’s billed as balancing shooting with investigation – I wouldn’t mind a bit of a police procedural. The nature of UP is that I only get to play each game for a short while, and it’s clear this is a substantial, slow-burning affair, leaving me not entirely well-placed to pass judgement. It’s started reasonably well though, with detailed environments, solid-feeling stealth-shooting and using camera modes on a (perhaps slightly too sci-fi) smartphone to turn up clues with UV light and heatmapping. The ‘find a captured woman’ plot has noddled towards horror movie tropes a little, which I could do without, but right now I’m really not sure how things will play out. By which I mean: I am curious to play more. Perhaps I will!
A short-but-punchy science-fictional interactive fiction game with a heavy nu-Battlestar influence to it. You’re the fleet commander, calling the shots about who to attack, who to protect, when to cut and run and how to turn the tables on an indefatigable alien foe who, in no short order, devastate your homeworld. Solid writing and suitably agonising choices – choices which costs ships, lives and even planets – make it a space saga-ette with clout.
Best of all, though, you get to choose the names of your world, your enemies and others. I have been trying to defend the UK from the cruel, rapacious reptilian claws of the Tories, a faction who “are not fond of negotiating, and seldom appear on the viewscreens.” Hmm. (N.B. Rest assured that a Little Bit Of Politics is entirely optional – you can make it the Romulans attacking Hogwarts or whatever if you prefer, or pick from a selection of alienese defaults).
($11.99/£8.99, Early Access)
Hyperactive platformer with a side order in teaching a few basic coding concepts. The central conceit works rather well – you’re playing as a debugging tool who gradually gains key abilities such as jumping and reprogramming blocks by finding and then manually typing in new routines. I’m not sure it’ll lead to actually memorising any code, but as a means of teaching rank beginners stuff like “oh, if I change this number then I can jump higher” it’s definitely got something going for it.
Sadly, it’s very obviously been written by someone for whom English is not their native language – quite a common issue in Unknown Pleasures, but that little bit more problematic when it involves teaching as well as expositing and joking. It’s still in Early Access, however, so a few passes down the line it could well become rather a well-realised explainer on how games get made, in addition to being a novel platformer in its own right.
Reptilian action-platformer with a touch of the roguelites to it and big, chunky art – falls a fair bit short of Nintendo standards, but is significantly closer to That Sort Of Thing on PC than yer average pixel-art or silhouetted jump-arounder is. There’s a focus on finding, equipping and swapping between a range of power-ups that mix up how you play, plus you get to choose what colour dragon you play as, so it feels a wee bit more personal than many platformers. Also: jumping is about reaching new places, not about failing and dying if you get it wrong. Always a relief.
Chief complaint is that the controls are fiddlier than they need to be, plus its UI doggedly talks about keyboard controls even when you’re using a far more appropriate controller. Otherwise, a well-put together jumpy-shooty affair that is probably being released on entirely the wrong platform.
Pick of the week is… 21 Days!
A whole lotta heart in this one, conveyed in a way that elicited sorrow and guilt in me, but without being cheap or cloying about it. A game that puts you in somebody else’s shoes, their daily concerns and dilemmas, the overarching complexity of their life, but achieved simply and sincerely. Please check it out.