Unknown Pleasures: The five best new games on Steam

I can't think of a good caption because I keep getting distracted by these bloody ants faffing about in my room.

Infants. Infants everywhere. Ooh, look at me, I’m like a human but smaller and I’m allowed to scream and climb on stuff if I want to, oooh. End of term holidays are when you’re supposed to be indoors playing games, not studying or going outside like some sort of peon. Bah. Wake me up when they’re all back in school juggling cats or bouncer baiting, or whatever this week’s Fear The Yoof thing is.

Why, I bet they don’t even know what Unknown Pleasures is named after.

Pointing out what used to be grass this week: naive snipers, murine nomads, and a little blobby blob that boings.

Gambol
£6.99/$9.99

Gambol is cuter than all the repulsively samey cutesy platformers that come out every week. It’s cute in the way that chicken tikka is spicy. In the way that a good cup of tea is almost, but not quite painful.

I don’t know, maybe it’s all in my head. But the simplicity of its bouncey, faintly squishy movement is so joyful, and even the blurb on its store page is… sincere. Gambol is sincere. There’s something disarming about that. Anyway, you’re a blob who must get to the exit by up-to-triple jumping off floors, walls, and ceilings alike, and your jump counter resets the instant you touch any non-lethal surface. If you want an extra challenge you can also collect all the triangles on the level. Totally optional, but you’ll try anyway.

It’s simple but finely tuned, and finding such novelty and charm in such a basic subgenre is rare.

Levantera: Tale of the Winds
£7.19/$9.99, Early Access

Recreating the NES colour palette often results in accurately hideous games. Levantera is an outlier that succeeds in looking the part aesthetically, not just chromatically. It also succeeds in approximating “retro” controls without feeling obstructive or gratuitous. Jumping and fighting are simple, even restrictive, but you’re rewarded for considered, carefully timed attacks rather than punished simply for playing.

You’re a shipwrecked captain gathering their scattered crew together to discover what’s behind various spooky goings on. To do this you wander about hacking up hostile animals and pirates, and gathering cash and resources to help build a ship. Then you can take to the seas to explore and trade and adventure and all that traditional bleepy bloopy jazz. Little nuggets of plot and dialogue come along in well-paced doses, and while a mite tricky, it’s usually carelessness that did me in, and it’s rather forgiving too; Death is a mere pickpocket in this world.

Cardinal Cross
£5.79/$7.99, Early Access

This isn't a joke, I'm not lea... oh for. What the hell are they doing now? Hang on, back in a bit.

It’s another good visual novel! Yes there’s some drivel out there but contrary to expectations, interactive fiction is definitely the genre that keeps giving in 2018.

This one comes out fighting, with great artwork and well framed stills to break up the usual static backgrounds. These backgrounds are mostly spaceship or station interiors, as your character, Lana Brice, is a doubly well-drawn space scavenger inadvertantly on the run after getting her hands on a Mystery Plot Thing. You get to colour in some of her lines, with frequent dialogue options ranging from flippant to cold, and Telltale-esque text noting the reaction of NPCs, who so far refuse to conform to any obviously good/evil binaries.

It’s unclear so far how influential either of these are, but that’s fine because like Omen Exitio, Cardinal Cross is well written. Dialogue is succinct, and characters quickly express their personalities while also hinting at unseen dimensions. There are, if anything, too many extremely short sentences and (argh) ellipses, but that’s certainly preferable to going too far the other way. Its sci fi terms link to a Codex, which you can dip into for details about the world. I never once had to. This is a sign of a talented fiction writer.

Final note comes from 4am Sin: “holy shit there’s a character with vitiligo. I’ve literally never seen that in fiction. They uh… also wear black and white clothing and their name is Gemini. I am unsure how to take this.”

Of Mice and Sand -Revised-
£8.99/$9.99

I’m going to slam this one a bit, but let’s be clear: it deserves a place here. Of Mice and Sand has you control a wee band of mice-people in Probably Future Earth. They set out from a stagnant desert settlement in a big ol’ mobile tin can, prompting me to stretch this sentence into an excuse to tell you all to read Mortal Engines.

You roll about the desert gathering scrap, directing your meeces to build rooms and turn said scrap into gear to develop your ship further, or sell to outposts. Outposts are the only safe place to stop, as parking in the wastes invites unstoppable Sandworms, while driving leads to ambushes.

Slam time: It’s not really the wild adventure it appears. It sounds and looks absolutely brilliant. The concept hints at a more open world FTL with trading and building, but Of Mice and Sand is in fact almost entirely about organising chains of production to pay for food, fuel, and to keep the piles of crap from spilling out of your ship. It’s really fun, but a particular kind of sedate fun that demands lots of micromanagenemt, planning, and even some grind as you roll back and forth a known area saving up enough parts to buy access to a new place.

However, it’s unfair to criticise a game for what it’s not, rather than what it is. Of Mice and Sand is unique, imaginative, and very well presented (aside from the very poorly laid out workshop menu). And! It’s not an effing roguelike. You can even have more than one saved game! Man, imagine if we had, say, about 25 years’ worth of games where that was standard. What a barmy notion.

Long Gone Days
£19.99/$14.99, Early Access

I could probably write a decent guide to how most interactive fiction games unecessarily screw up. Even better, I could use a pile of examples like Long Gone Days to demonstrate the right way to do it. Even if it’s really more of an adventure RPG. Did you see that? I suggested writers look beyond their noses for ideas. Proper bedlam in here this week.

The leading strength is the narrative, which gets straight to the point. Instead of waxing lyrical, or wasting our time narrating an acre of backstory for a character we don’t yet care about, this one gives you the hook with a briefly narrated, flash forward introduction. You’re Rourke, a sniper for the Core, a secret underground nation/army trained from childhood to protect the world, keep the peace, and separate your socks into matching pairs like a massive, sad dork.

Which of course is a bit sinister and raises troubling questions to us, but not (yet) to our Mini Morlock friend. You direct Rourke as he leaves the Core for the first time, discovers terrible truths, and has to go on the run and, I wager, investigate and expose a monstrous conspiracy with the aid of a resistance movement and a bit where he stands on a rooftop going “No!” for whatever reason.

I’m being mean. The writing doesn’t insult your intelligence, as much of this is foreshadowed from the opening lines, and Rourke himself is a quick study, so there’s none of the impatience that comes with being shackled to a dimtagonist.

There’s turn based fighting, adventure game looting, and a little sniping. All are absolutely fine, and the parts come together comfortably, neither tacked on or underused. The artwork is bright and attractive, and the understated sound and animations give it more heft than I expected. After well over an hour I’m still enjoying myself and curious about what’s coming, which is all you can really ask for.

Pick of the Week: Oooh, this really is a tricky one, but I slightly favour Cardinal Cross.

HAIL ANTS

Almost a three way tie there with Of Mice and Sand, and Long Gone Days. But its space adventure setting is a touch more exciting than the more niche appeal of the others, and its promise of grown up interpersonal drama is alluring.

25 Comments

  1. Draegdrwg says:

    Something about the look at music of Gambol reminds me of the kind of games I used to find on floppy disks of shareware Acorn games back in the day..

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      zapatapon says:

      Instant “flash to childhood” effect for me too by listening to Gambol’s music (it reminds me of the “Thing on a Spring” theme turned to a minor key). This tune captures oldschool spirit so well and in an unassuming way.

    • MajorLag says:

      I thought it was very reminiscent of Nifflas’s work, Within a Deep Forest specifically.

  2. Someoldguy says:

    Hurray for Unknown Pleasures. I’m certainly putting Cardinal Cross on my wishlist for when it sneaks out of Early Access.

  3. April March says:

    Mortal Engines is pretty good indeed.

    And there’s something alluring about Of Mice And Sand (sorry, OF MICE AND SAND) offering a SimTower-like experience wrapped in FTL-like combat and random events.

    • Massenstein says:

      I had forgotten about that series. I read three of the novels years ago and couldn’t find the fourth one anywhere. I think it’s time to read the whole series from the beginning. Really amazing somethingpunk that avoids the annoyances of those genres.

  4. caff says:

    I’m glad this column exists, and I’m even more glad that Sin Vega is writing it for RPS.

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      zapatapon says:

      I want to concur with the above comment and say that Sin is slowly becoming my favorite writer on RPS. More of this please.

    • Caiman says:

      I remember when the whole of RPS was basically like this column. At least we still get something that celebrates the unusual, the original and the daring.

  5. geldonyetich says:

    Instead of Steam Charts, lets just have two of these a week.

    • Massenstein says:

      Seconded! We probably already know everything we need about top-selling games, but these less known gems are really deserving of our attention.

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      Dios says:

      So what you’re trying to say is, “But why do you even write these enormously popular columns full of jokes where you pretend to be so annoyed at having to write these enormously popular columns, if you don’t want to write them?”. Except under a whole different article. Crafty!

      • geldonyetich says:

        Nope. What the other guy said.

        Also, I think they’re pretending less than you think, though exaggeration is surely a factor.

    • Someoldguy says:

      I’d split the difference and just include more games of interest on any week that there are duplicate entries in the steam chart. That would allow at least a couple more to feature on a typical week (naturally not in actual ranking positions). I wouldn’t want to lose the chart completely because it’s actually good to see some new games sneak in occasionally. Even if they do vanish all too quickly.

    • Caiman says:

      Yes, where do I vote for this idea? Steam Charts is a weekly reminder of how shit mainstream gaming is, this column is a reminder that gaming actually is still awesome.

  6. FordTruck says:

    link to twitter.com KYNSEED closed beta on april 29th too wooohooo

  7. Thankmar says:

    I’m stressed just by watching the Gambol trailer. Just not cut out for hardcore platforming.

  8. mega5657 says:

    Long Gone Days and Cardinal Cross look amazing! Definitely keeping an eye out for these two on the ‘ol wishlist.

  9. MrSaxon says:

    Thank you for continuing to highlight good interactive novels. I bought Omen Exitio last week, based on your advice, and have been greatly enjoying it.

  10. marmarta says:

    I’m torn between happily thanking for awesome recommendations (Omen Exitio was awesome, Cardinal Cross also looks good) and complaining about the state of my wallet. And here I was, thinking I had my Steam habit under control…

  11. poliovaccine says:

    Well that mouse game has the most irritating trailer imaginable, but I’m glad I read about cus I’d never heard of Mortal Engines, but that sounds great.

  12. dontnormally says:

    Also just dropping by to say that I am loving this column. “games you might not know of” articles in general are things I appreciate and RPS tends to come through with top notch suggestions.

  13. poliovaccine says:

    By the way… some of us do know what this column is named after..!

  14. RimeOfTheMentalTraveller says:

    I just saw that both games from here I wanted to try are Early Access, namely Cardinal Cross and Long Days Gone, can anyone confirm if they’re pretty much feature complete and the devs are just adding small stuff or if there’s more work to be done? I loathe interacting with work in progress of any type, book, film or game