Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures, our weekly* search for five splendid but under-reported new games released on Steam over the past seven days.
This week: firelight survival, bootleg Podracing, Mario vs Super Crate Box, monkey-free Monkey Ball and lava lamp simulation.
*We’ve admittedly missed a couple of weeks of Unknown Pleasures recently. There’ll be one more of these ahead of Christmas, then the column will return at full-strength in 2018.
Star Wars Podracing (btw – Star Wars Episode 1: Pod Racer is one of the best Star Wars games, don’t @ me) meets endless runner. Your Wipeouty hover-racer speeds along canyons and through derelict industrial plants, with you handling steering and a limited boost which is recharged by driving very, very close to obstacles. The longer you live, the faster you get and the more threatened you are by an unseen pursuer that paints lasers on your back. If you don’t boost fast enough regularly enough, you get splatted – but you also get splatted if you hit a wall too fast.
So it’s a game of risk-balancing at speed. I winced initially at what appeared to be a heavy microtransaction system for ship ugpgrades, but it turns out you can’t actually buy anything – it’s all earned in games, with big in-game currency rewards to be had from levelling up and leaderboard placements. It’s not actually a multiplayer game, but you do get ranked after every attempt, and it’s up to you if you want to pursue that stuff or not.
It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s got racing hoverships and it just feels good, man. Though it does make the endlessly dunderheaded move of not letting you into graphics settings until you’ve had your first race, so you’ll have to suffer playing it in 1024×768 window at first. In terms of UI, it’s also very obviously a mobile port, but the race itself are both keyboard and pad friendly.
Super Crate Box-inspired arcade/shooter/platformer in which you’re locked in one room, bounding about and shooting/evading waves of enemies. New weapons spawn regularly, and you’re forever balancing ‘new thing!’ with ‘thing I know how to use well!’, but the main twist from Vlambeer’s similar game is that you can refill ammo by doing a Mario bounce onto an enemy’s head. As such, the biggest risk-reward loop is chancing close promixity in order to refill your current, favoured weapon, or hanging back and doing your best with whatever you end up with from the next weapon spawn.
But what I also like is that its Spectrum-style colour palette acts as an unlock system – manage to snag enough coins during the frenzy of jumping, shooting and permadeath and you can access a new scheme, in livid purple or toxic yellow, and so forth. It’s remarkable how different each palette makes the game. All told though, it’s familiar but deeply compulsive, and is its own game despite being so ostensibly similar to SCB.
Swimming Inside A Lava Lamp Simulator 2017, basically. It’s halfway between noodly-zen game and a sort of grappling hook puzzle. You’re a bubble in a world of bubbles, finding your way to one giant central bubble by tethering yourself to other bubbles that float along the approximate route to it. In other words, steer well clear of this if you’re ebulliophobic.
Pleasant music, shifting shapes and psychedelic colours make this one a treat for tired senses, though the control scheme – in which you target bubbles you float loosely around, and hold down left mouse to grapple towards them – is perhaps just a little bit more fiddly than the chill-out room ambience might suggest.
Super Monkey Ball by way of Trackmania, which is to say a game about rolling a jumping ball through hazardous abstract runs, as quickly and precisely as possible, but with the benefit of an instant restart button. The latter alone is enough to ensure you keep trying a tricky level rather than give up in despair at all the waiting every time you fail. The lo-texture, stark shape look is extremely striking, particularly when you get to trees and floating rock formations, and hey, you can even chose what colour your angular ball is.
The physics of rolling, jumping and momentum feel just right – and mastering them enables you to snag treasure during your high-speed run – but I must say that the camera leaves a lot to be desired. Will be just tickety-boo after a patch or two, I think. Strong soundtrack too.
This War Of Mine-’em-up which a little more successful in terms of ambience than it is features, but it’s both a soothing and a stressful way to pass an evening. You control a pair of nameless, faceless, e’er-silhouetted survivors in a country invaded by an unspecified enemy, trying to stay alive in the woods. That means finding fuel for the fire, maintaining food and water, treating wounds and catching Zs as required, and the main mechanic for that is forays to far-off locations in search of supplies. When you do that, the game switches to become a sort of Inside-lite, a side-scrolling torch-evasion affair, taking shelter in the shadows.
It’s quite basic and looping in practice, but certainly not unpleasantly so – managing these lost people’s needs by firelight, to a sombre acoustic guitar soundtrack, even stirred a few STALKER memories in me.
Pick of the week this week is… I’ll go with Gunlock. I’m extremely conscious of the debt it owes to Vlambeer, but the combination of head-squashing and colour-unlocking gives it a vibe of its own. Most importantly, I didn’t want to stop playing.