Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures, our weekly selection of the best lesser-hyped games on Steam that you’ve almost certainly missed.
This week: walking simulation, horse simulation, hang-gliding simulation, Aztec combat simulation, dog-in-a-dungeon simulation and Portal recreation.
Oops, my mistake:
Achingly earnest casual horse-riding/care sim, with horsepower (sorry) provided by the Unreal engine. Apparently it’s based on a series of books and movies I’ve never heard of, but I am reasonably confident in declaring that I am not the target audience. Yeah, all the doe-eyed whimsy and horse fetishisation is fairly grating, but y’know what, this is genuinely quite lovely. The timing-based races and checkpoint tracks I can take or leave, but the free ride mode through luscious countryside is an absolute treat. A cantering simulator, if you will. Delightful if slightly too Disneyfied escapism.
I should warn that the controls are on the odd side – it’s straining to be casual-friendly, with a minimum of dexterity required, but winds up somewhere counter-intuitive as a result. I got used to it after a few minutes of bounding over walls and trotting through poppy fields, however.
We’ve already newsed this puzzle-roguelite, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to give it a go myself in the hope it would scratch a few Desktop Dungeon itches. The shtick is you’re a dog traipsing around enemy-filled dungeons, though doggishness stops short at the ability to bark in order to change an enemy’s facing (you can only attack them without getting harmed if they have their backs to you). So the real shtick is that you can undo any move by retracing your steps, thus devising a hopefully safer alternative route around the dungeon. However, your route is a physical presence, like Snake, so if you cover too much floorspace as you roam around fighting and coin-collecting, you’ll end up blocking the exit. Cunning! Cute and slick – if I’m honest, maybe a little bit too tough for my tastes, as I’ve felt frustration grow fairly quickly. I reckon I’ll sit with this for a good while if I approach it on a particularly zen day, however.
Brazenly Portal-inspired first-person puzzler, but it’s smart and refreshingly short and just about manages to have a spirit of its own. Rather than portals, you can fire some sort of energy from a hand-mounted device, which provides power to doors but is finite in quantity. Opening up one path closes another, so the trick therefore is to devise your route through the level, which invariably requires an exact solution in terms of what power orbs you stick where and when/how to reclaim them in order to open the next door.
The jumping element’s a bit scatty, and I’m not sure that also adopting Portal’s minimalist-industrial aesthetic was the wisest course of action, but it’s solidly enjoyable puzzling and a bargain at £1/$1. It’s also got a darkly neat trick in that, if you die, a grey and disembodied hand hangs on the spot where you met your end. In one level I struggled with, the room wound up so festooned with severed hands that I could barely move through it.
Dwelling in the sort of halfway house between walking simulator and narrative game that we usually associate with games from The Chinese Room, but this time using a magic-realistic great outdoors, inspired by Celtic mythology. Though in the main it’s a pressure-free ramble through very pretty Unreal-rendered surroundings, there are a few puzzlettes and a couple of faintly startlingly fantasy moments. It’s appropriately tranquil in the main though, but with a worthwhile sense of journey to it and a rather pleasant, lilting Irish voiceover.
However, on my PC the controls went haywire and I spent most of the game having to pull left, right, up or down to walk forwards. I can’t find anyone else reporting the same issue, however, so I won’t use that as a black mark against this.
Real-time strategy/action RPG mash-up in which you’re a wee small dude trying to simultaneously clobber monsters while ordering settlers to harvest, build and defend. ‘Frantic’ would be the word here, as the game suddenly tilts from tranquil construction into manic fighting of hordes of icy and zombified foes whenever winter arrives (yup, there’s a mild GOT vibe here, it’s safe to say) on a regular basis. You have simultaneous direct control of your character, who can level up and gain new attacks as well as acquiring single-shot loot, and indirect control of followers, constantly changing their assignation from support to attack.
The interface and controls leave a little to be desired, and the learning curve is steep, but that aside this is an effective balancing act of disparate styles. Not merely trying to survive, but trying to expand while trying to survive. I’m pretty keen on this one. (Oh, btw – this has been around on Itch for a few months already, but made its Steam debut this week).
Third-person puzzler whose aesthetic puts me in mind of early noughties Ubisoft, back when they were still cheerfully being extremely Gallic rather than chasing the mainstream action wind. A bit like Fidel Dungeon Rescue, the key mechanic is finding a path around a grid-based level that doesn’t involve repeating any former steps, but in this case it’s not an impassable snake-line that dictates this and instead every block you stand on falls away once you leave it.
Very gentle, and perhaps a little plainer than it really needs to be, but solid, captivating (and maths-free) puzzling nonetheless.
Turn-based, empire-building strategy, but where battles switch into real-time, combo-based, mega-bloody brawling. It’s a bit like a boardgame, but every time you try to invade another player’s tile, you have to stab them. We’ve been intrigued by Aztez for a full half-decade at this point, and while it’s pretty sweet, I’d be hard pushed to say that it’s a game that feels like it’s had significantly more development than many other things here. The black’n’white’n’red artwork’s attractive but does look a little spartan compared to, say, Darkest Dungeon, which also does the hand-drawn, atmospheric 2D kinda thing, but the real tell that this is more than the average bear is the complexity and fluidity of the combat system. This is, if you’ll forgive such an outdated phrase, console-quality fightin’.
I felt fairly alarmed during the tutorial, as it issued combo command after combo command at me, but in practice it’s far more organic, learning what works against which foes and lurching happily out of your comfort zone once you’ve nailed the basics. And, when the fighting’s done, it’s time to nab some cities, play some cards and push back against the dastardly Spanish invasion.
All told, a genre fusion that works very well. This definitely would have been raved about the world over a few years ago, but I worry about it getting lost in the noise now.
A 2D adventure game with psychological horror overtones (and perhaps just a touch of the Silent Hills), hailing from, I believe, Turkey. The English translation is a little messy (brace yourself for a near-total absence of apostrophes) but in a way this adds to the unsettling tone, including flashbacks, sinister government agents and menacing visions that may or may not be real. Memory and regret are major factors too.
There’s real atmosphere here, with the simple artwork just about landing on the side of haunting rather than plain.
Definitely should be called ‘Hanglider Simulator’ instead, because that’s exactly what this is: a recreation of one specific thing, that being the art of flying through the air through wind-power alone. Extremely simple controls – movement is all you get – belie the difficulty here, as you catch draughts to accelerate and turn against the wind to decelerate. The challenge, if you choose, of each of the six extremely beautiful levels is to fly through a series of 50 hoops (in an order of your choosing), and to start with this is going to involve regularly slamming face-first into mountainsides.
Really though, the challenge element is incidental: this is about solitary, near-silent flight across impressively vast and detailed scenery. A dream of absolute freedom, so long as you don’t stray too close to the ground. Sure, it’s a little barebones, but if that’s the result of all energies being put into making the scenery so huge and spectacular, I don’t begrudge it that one bit.
And Pick Of The Week this time around is… I’m going to give a joint going to Aztez and Gods Of The Fallen Land. Both do a jolly good job of making well-worn genres collide, and I want to keep playing both of them equally and urgently.