Unknown Pleasures: This week’s pick of new Steam releases

What's the difference between a good butler and a bad rhinologist? One leaves a turban next to me, the other leaves a turbinectomy.

Winter has finally arrived in force in London, bringing with it some questions. Whose idea was it to live on the surface? Why would anyone wear a fleece without arms? What kind of monster thinks it’s okay to make a coat with fake pockets, and why didn’t everyone immediately kill him with spears?

Alas, these are not questions that Unknown Pleasures can answer. But if your local mountaintop hermit has no idea what the best new Steam releases are, you’re in luck.

Lining our inexplicably porous gloves this week: liminal AIs, invisible mines, and gender critical spies.

The Mind’s Eclipse
£7.19/$9.99

It’s easy to misrepresent The Mind’s Eclipse. It’s a visual novel, or heavily stripped down adventure game. You wake up in an abandoned hospital with amnesia. You’re joined by a helpful but snarky and faintly suspicious AI. The writing is competent but didn’t exactly blow me away. You see how faintly damning it all sounds?

The story, in particular the mysteries it teases, is the main draw. The setting is Jupiter’s moon Europa, long since colonised, and now apparently the scene of some sort of attack. Protagonist Jonathan Campbell is a scientist and/or doctor, a widower who did something in a bid to save his sick wife Hannah. Bionics and human augmentation are routine, some sort of Matrix/Better Than Life situation occurs with advanced VR, and it’s pretty clear that Campbell did something Icarian.

It’s that little space between the sum of all its parts where it comes together. The controls are fine, the ‘puzzles’ largely locked gates to keep you from skipping ahead until you’ve visited the key room. The moody music and sound bring that constant low dread whose absence ruins most bad horror games. The monochrome scheme should fit a clean space hospital, but this is a damaged, terribly wrong place, so it’s juxtaposed with deliberately rough, loosely drawn lines. Hazy in the details just like your mind, not quite sure what’s real and what’s distorted by your augmentations.

Still Not Dead
£7.19/$9.99

This came damn close to going in the latrine marked “Zombie Shooting Arena”, but that would be a grave error.

Serious Sam is perhaps the closest comparison. You dash around an arena full of demons, who obligingly wait for you to get close or attack. Shooting enough of them will open the exits, but you might opt to scour the level for money, weapons, and health first. However, if you dawdle too long, an absolutely terrifying incarnation of Baron von Blubba will appear in the form of a giant hovering skull, and chase you down.

Levels, items and weapons are random. You accumulate blessings and curses at the start of each level. You might choose a small chance your bullets will explode on impact, but next level have to pick a curse that charges you a fee for every hit you take. Some are dangerous double-or-nothing gambles, others inconsequential, but once you start surviving for a bit longer they can combine in unexpected ways.

Still Not Dead has a strange rhythmn. It’s frantic but you have a lot of control over the terms of the fight. It’s difficult but not sadistic. I’m not as taken with it as I should be, not least because I didn’t seem to get a decent gun often and the default one lacks satisfaction. But it’s an original blend of very familiar elements.

Delete
£1.69/$1.99

Minimalist Puzzle Game of the Week declines to crash through the wall and instead glows orange and gently plucks a harp symbolising its triumphant return. This time it’s isometric Minesweeper. While it’s surely impossible that this is a new idea, Delete does well with it. Each level presents a shape comprised of yellow squares, plus a few grey ones with a number on. You’ve played it, come on.

More complex rules come in, and buttons move parts of the level about. The challenge isn’t taxing, nor enormously satisfying, but it’s pleasant and well paced. Two slight flaws are compounded by a third; first, flagging a red makes the adjacent numbers go down, which will throw you repeatedly if you’re used to Minesweeper rules. Second, there are occasional corners where you simply have to guess. Each would be acceptable, but Delete restarts the level if you click the wrong square three times, and this can get a tad irritating.

Dust and Salt
£5.79/$7.99

An annoying prologue is a dangerous flaw for Unknown Pleasures. I almost threw this out for the entirely trial and error introductory sequence, which gives you a few decisions, most of which kill you utterly unpredictably. And then you have to click-scroll through all that text again. Oof.

Fortunately, it gets better. It is a glorified choose your own adventure game, in which you swear revenge on the kingdom that killed your dad, and wander about the world trying to forge alliances and raise armies.

The pretty world map serves an abstract function, even if your actual position on it is meaningless. Interactive fiction should stand on its writing, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a nice big map to look at and contextualise your journey. Most of these adventures involve saying the right things to people, some of which depend on skills. These are based on your behaviour in the prologue, rather than by mucking about with XP, so there’s some replay value. A very simple turn-based battle occasionally pops up, but doesn’t make much of a splash. It doesn’t feel like an adventure the way, say, 80 Days does, (what does?) but I cared about my decisions and wanted to know what would happen next.

Your Royal Gayness
£11.39/$14.99

Unbrace yourself and retrieve the weary sigh that title probably provoked. Mere weeks since Chess of Blades, we’ve got another silly, funny game about gay aristocratic romance.

Prince Amir’s parents are away for a while, leaving him in charge of everything. Assisting him are his general, his genderqueer spymaster, and a magical lizard called Barry. And while it absolutely is daft and utterly uninterested in a tangible game world, it’s not the WACKY RANDIM LOL nonsense it may sound like.

There’s a hint of Reigns, as you must balance four numbers representing the pillars of your realm – wealth, nobility, soldiers, and happy commoners – mostly by having your advisors go out gathering, but also by making decisions during your daily audiences. This isn’t particularly challenging, but nor is it meant to be. Rather, the focus is on the plot and the outcomes of your decisions. Bad decisions aren’t harshly punished, but can spiral a bit, and handling people well is vital, not least because Prince Amir is secretly gay, which is outlawed.

This is mostly handled comically, but not mockingly. Instead, the absurdity is emphasised, most notably with the regular visits from interested princesses, who must be fended off by a terrified Amir with absurd excuses like having a premonition that he’d die on his wedding night, or that he’s Batman. There are more serious moments sprinkled in, but the focus is very much on being fun and a bit odd, and trying to be a good ruler, both to keep yourself going, and to build up the capital needed to maybe improve society for everyone.

It could use a little more structure. Something like Princess Maker 2’s annual Harvest Festival and birthday would reduce the vague feeling that the other boot is going to drop at any moment. But then, perhaps that’s an appropriate feeling, given Amir’s predicament.

I’ll be candid: I was quite disappointed this week. I’d never feature a game that I didn’t think was good, but where previous weeks were closely fought, today’s Pick of the Week is only contentious because I already picked Chess of Blades so recently. It’s Your Royal Gayness.

I'm not apologising.

Some of its conversations may feel a tiny bit shoehorned, but I liked the mashup of casual kingdom management / decision making / visual novel subgenres enough to keep playing it for far longer than I should have. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off up a mountain to ask why the hell slide belts still haven’t replaced the useless ones with the holes.

15 Comments

  1. Stuart Walton says:

    Re: Delete

    “Second, there are occasional corners where you simply have to guess.”

    I never had to guess. There were some puzzles that had moments that at first and second glance appeared so, but it is still possible to solve it.

    They’re those cases in puzzles where you have consider pieces in multiple states and eliminate enough of those states through spotting the contradictions to reveal a truth. It’s not something that is easy to teach in a tutorial.

    The lowering numbers threw me off at first too. But it makes sense
    since they have to change when you move the pieces. I also swapped the functions of the mouse buttons because it felt right that way around.

    • Person of Interest says:

      This is a good sign for Delete, if its puzzles are tricky enough that Sin thinks guessing is required (as in Minesweeper), but can in fact be solved deliberately (as in all good puzzle games).

    • Landiss says:

      I don’t know. I just started and played a few levels. Already twice it seemed like there are simply 2 or more possible solutions with no way of knowing which is one is correct. I admit that in one other situation that’s what I thought at first, but then I managed to figure it out. But look at this screenshot and tell me how can you say which of the 3 blocks between the 2 numbered ones contain the bomb?

      link to ctrlv.cz

    • Malcolm says:

      I completed Delete in 3 hours at a relaxed pace. Quite fun, very reminiscent of Matthew Brown’s games but not as elegant (Hexcells Plus took me 9 hours to complete according to Steam if that gives you some idea of my competency!). Worth £1.50 though.

  2. April March says:

    Welp, I guess ‘genderqueer spymaster’ just pushed out ‘cellar door’ as the most beautiful sequence of words in the English language.

  3. josborn says:

    As opening paragraphs go, that right there is a thing of beauty.

  4. Stillquest says:

    Icarian. That’s a good word.

  5. Captain Narol says:

    I haven’t played Dust and Salt yet, but it got positive reviews in the “Turn-Based Tactics” Steam Group that I am a member of.

    Game is short (2-3h by play) but replayable and fun, according to them.

  6. Premium User Badge

    jamesosogood says:

    I knew I recognized Still not Dead from somewhere! It was featured in one of Alec’s Unknown Pleasures:
    link to rockpapershotgun.com

    It wasn’t Pick of the Week there either, but showing up twice must count for something, right?

    • Sin Vega says:

      This comment is counter-revolutionary. Sieze them!

      (actually embarassed that I missed that. I normally check and don’t write about anything that’s been on here before)

  7. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Why would anyone wear a fleece without arms?

    This seems rather discriminatory towards people without arms.

    • Sin Vega says:

      You jest, but as it happens, I changed that to “sleeves” in a late edit, but did so in the wrong tab and forgot to copy over (my new editing technique is unstoppable) so it didn’t go up.

      That’s also what happened to all the good jokes, of course.

  8. railbeast says:

    Fanatical has a bundle for STILL NOT DEAD. You can get it for $1 right now, through the 7th.

    I bought it, enjoying it so far but it is difficult.

  9. RimeOfTheMentalTraveller says:

    I have to say I’m glad to hear a Bulgarian game is actually well done and nice, not that stuff like Celtic Kings, Carthagen or Tropico isn’t, but some compatriots are trying to do asset flips, predictably, while Dust & Salt sounds nice. I’ll buy it when I have money

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