We don’t really do themes for Unknown Pleasures, but sometimes the fates mess up and it sort of happens anyway. This week features the usual variety you’ve surely come to expect from our selection of the best new indie games on Steam, but fans of commerce ought to be particularly tickled.
There, see? We can do an intro without banging on about what time of year it is, or weird allusions to my private life. We just choose not to.
Owning the means of production this week: art history, baby dragons, and demonic denial.
Little Dragons Café
£46.49 / €49.99 / $59.99
Your mum, right, your mum, she’s not the most forward thinking of half-dragons. She knew that one day she’d slip into a coma and cark it but she didn’t bother to either tell you or prepare you to run the family café without her. Well, okay, the day before it happened she taught you how to fry an egg, but still.
Little Dragons Cafe is a … hmm. Well, it’s a little bit Recettear and a little bit Stardew Valley, but not as involved as either, with a strong focus on its story and characters. Indeed, it’s very much on rails for the opening act at least, as you’re introduced rather slowly to each of the characters who’ll wind up staffing your café, and all the things you’ll need to do to keep it running.
Mostly you’ll run about the bright and colourful 3D landscape, harvesting plants and fish, and looking for recipes. You’ll also do some cooking via a rhythm action minigame, serving customers, and washing up, although aside from the gathering your staff can handle this as long as you boot them now and then. Mostly it’s the conversations and cut scenes that’ll take up your time. Oh, and your baby dragon. You’ve got to save your mum by raising the dragon, see, and the weird old magic man with a poo emoji on his wizard stick (I don’t know) who suggested it isn’t big on explaining how. Little Dragons Café looks like it will really open up after a few hours, and it has great production values and a strong pedigree behind it, but at a positively eye-watering forty-seven quid, it’s one you really ought to think about carefully.
It’s cute and sweet and very child-friendly. If you want a full business sim it’ll likely annoy, but I had a lovely time and liked the flamboyant and weird characters. Although I do slightly regret naming the boy “Filth”.
£3.99 / 3.99€ / $4.99
A possible cheat this, as RPS Chief Grump John Walker told you about it last year. But its full release puts it firmly in our territory, and it gets several important things right.
Cheap Golf is a minigolf game with chunky pixelly sounds and bleepy bloopy graphics, in which an unseen AI challenges and taunts you with ever-increasing malice. Each of these elements can be frankly quite annoying in other games, but the handling here is very skilful. Drag-putting your square into the hole around walls and teleporters and hazards is quick and responsive, rewarding skill but also leaving room for recklessness and occasional wild punting. The sounds and visuals never grate, and your tormenter is never quite too smug, too wacky, or too dry to be entertaining. It is odd, mildly funny, and self-aare enough to know that there is a hard limit on how threatening a retro-style golf game can ever be.
£15.49 / 16.79€ / $19.99
Some comic nerd or other wrote about Thief recently and covered a lot of important things. But while we cry out for games that built on Thief’s advanced design and concepts and so on, we’re also missing something more basic: where are the heist games? Where are the games about swiping stuff and then running away while giggling?
So yeah, Thief Simulator. It’s clunky, I’m not gonna lie. This isn’t the smoothest game ever made and you’ll need to suspend your disbelief a little, but the basic loop of sneaking into houses, nabbing old appliances and utensils (for real, if you stole a TV I’d be annoyed, but stealing the stuff I need to cook? That’s just monstrous) and then hawking them is great. You’re a freelance burglar, who drives around a 3D neighbourhood at will, casing the houses so you can come back later and teef their stuff. You spend proceeds on gear, tips and special jobs back at your depressing garage hideout (mate, buy yourself a bed. Even I have a bed), and there’s a basic levelling system for getting into tougher places or out of trouble. Should you be spotted, you have to hide or run while the (weirdly overzealous) police do their thing, as there’s no option for violence. It’s a bit sad that I felt a bit lost without a way to clock people over the head, even if just for a laugh.
As stealth goes it’s more about being quick and emptying a house before anyone comes home than about dodging guards. Again, it’s rough around the edges and could do with more content, but there’s something compelling about it, and nothing quite like it.
£15.49 / 16.79€ / $19.99
Trading games are a bit of a sore point to me, and business sims are hard to evaluate on limited time. Arté is a rather neat distillation of profit-seeking that cuts out just about everything besides cutting deals. You’re a representative of the Medici, one of history’s most famous trading houses, and your job is simple: make that sweet cash.
Except this is Renaissance Italy, so you’re not just chasing the bottom line. Your reputation in general and with the church in particular are just as important, so you need to do favours and avoid tempting shortcuts along the way. Each turn has a couple of offers land on your desk. You need never worry about shipping or movement or anything other than which offers to accept, and once they’re done the turn ends automatically. Even supply is no problem, as you can buy goods at any time for the market price, which is static. Anathema to the trading game tradition it may be, but this lack of dynamism sort of achieves what I was asking for back in 2016 – all that matters is which deals you agree to. They’re the only way to profit at all, and though there’s no negotiation, it makes for an interesting dynamic.
The other novelty in play is that Arté is an educational tool about Renaissance art. No, really. You regularly support or turn your back on famous artists of the period by patronising them (“ohhh Donatello, well done, you handled that brush all by yourself!”) and helping them choose designs for their paintings based on what themes they represent or what techniques they demonstrate. While you can cheat (and might have to, as I did for a couple of the buildings. I can barely identify buildings in London, a city I grew up in, let alone Italy), you could teach yourself a fair bit about the paintings and sculptures simply by examining and thinking about them. Say Masaccio wants to paint something that portrays loss and grief. You only need to look at the correct answer to see it.
It’s entertaining and contextualises art without lecturing. Buuuuuuut my god, wait for a sale. This one is far too pricey at present. I generally trust you to make your own judgements about price, but that’d be sheer negligence on this one.
The Other Half
£5.79 / 6.59€ / $7.99
The Other Half looked appealing, but borderline. Yet once it came to playing it myself, it really came to life. It’s a top-down action game with an unintrusive but important narrative, and a modest, striking art style that makes particularly nice use of its perspective.
You’re a demon hunter asked to a mountainside village to clear out a stubborn infestation that’s bringing an unnatural Winter and a grody, pustulating definition of “demons”. Neither guns nor melee, but a mid-ranged fire blast directed with the arrows or mouse (I struggled with both a little, as the fire is blocked by objects but can sort of curve around them with practice), and a short range dodge-teleport are all the tools you need. Demons are similarly limited but well differentiated visually and behaviourally, and great use is made of the handful of elements. Demons are invulnerable except on their pulsating blue boils, which splark open in a manner that’s not quite gross enough to be dissatisfying, necessitating development of several techniques and maneouvres, and some on the spot tactical planning in trickier areas.
Your other tools are medicines and armour made by locals in exchange for demonic essence, out of which also emerges an understated story that cannily exploits its few moving parts. There is a tangible melancholy and lingering dread and suspicion that made me sure I could see a reveal coming for just long enough to mess with my expectations.
£10.99 / 11.59€ / $13.99, Early Access
The success of agar.io has inspired several UP contenders this year. Most are fine (indeed, one or two almost featured) but Sipho is easily the best I’ve seen. The concept is somewhere between Katamari and a build-your-own robot/ship/tank/etc fighting game, in which you guide a tiny organism, flitting about a primordial soup nabbing nutrients and fleeing predators, until you’ve eaten and therefore grown enough to become one. The modular building means you get structural points to make a shape, and movement or utility or weapon bits you can stick on the ends in whatever configuration you like (and can ‘afford’ in terms of food).
All pretty standard for the genre, but Sipho gets the balance between options and accessibility right. It’s easy to grasp and to build things the way you want without lots of tedious mucking about, and the levels are strangely pretty. The combat feels surprisingly punchy too, and rather than winning simply by being bigger, you can fight off stronger-seeming opponents by coming up with and using a clever design. This is necessary for the boss fights, which I mostly survived by charging in with an array of lunging spikes, and then shamelessly farting toxins at pursuers as I ran away. Tactically cutting rivals apart before devouring them shouldn’t be so satisfying.
£7.50 / 8.50€ / $9.99, Early Access
It’s another Recettear-like, only on the other extreme to the story-monorail of Little Dragons Café. Goblin’s Shop is more freeform, and trusts you rather quickly to get on with business as you see fit. Your goal, as An Goblin, is to build up your fortune and team of allied warriors until you can challenge the castle stronghold of the local big stinky humans (much like the secret plan we have to take Castle Shotgun in 2020. Shhhh, shh). It’s actually pretty cool, thinking about it – as revenge stories go it’s got an individualist style. You’re no warrior at all, indeed on the resource gathering exploration/combat sections you’re completely defenceless without your loyal hired idiots. But you have a head for business, and you can bang out axes and helmets and potions all day long given enough materials.
Business is impressively intuitive. You buy work stations, shelves to display things on, and decorations to entince, and simply make whatever you want to sell. Those freelance mooks are among the many passers by who… pass by your shop every day, sometimes wandering in, and sometimes thinking aloud about what items they need. In between making sales, startling shoplifters, and smelting leather into bows you can step out and solicit people directly. There’s a real sense that they’re browsing, so you’re free to build a varied inventory, or specialise, or play reactively based on the customers’ thought bubbles.
The combat parts are fine too – you walk about unsafe areas replete with treasure chests, trees and ore seams, and hopefully your associates have bought some decent gear from you to keep the human filth off your case.
I like it. It doesn’t look much and there’s some grind (it feels unfair to even call it that, since the whole point of a shop demands repetition), but it’s a surprisingly solid shopkeeping sim. It doesn’t lean too hard into the “ha ha we are the evil side” thing either, which is oddly refreshing.
£15.49 / 16.79€ / $19.99, Early Access
In my eternal drive to alienate you all, I’m denouncing yet another genre as Ungood. This time it’s the ‘clicker’, a brew normally distilled from pure essence of grinder’s remorse. Time Warpers combines the ever-increasing numbers with the dodging and mayhem of a crowd management FPS, and the result is… pretty fun actually. You advance through maps one section at a time, clearing out waves of blocky insects and occasional behemoths to grind for gold to upgrade your guns, drone and turret, and repeat until each section is clear and the boss is dead. Or indefinitely, as you can keep spawning waves for as long as you like.
The shooting is unremarkable, with your single gun pewing out recharging energy shots or spraying mini rockets at such volume that the physical thrill of shooting takes a distant back seat to the urge to clean up and get strong enough to take out the big lad at the end.
The controls are fine, although activating the special attacks (mostly labour savers like the spread shot, or auto-fire that temporarily causes your gun to fire automatically when pointed at nasties) has an inexplicable power button to press first, and the monster variety is on the thin side. As is typical of the genre, the early stages take the most manual clicking and waiting to recharge (at least livened up by having to flee for a bit), but you soon upgrade to a near-constant stream of gunfire and precious gold.
I can’t help but feel like there ought to be more guns though, rather than just alternative fire modes.
Pick of the week: I really like Goblin’s Shop. I’m honestly thrown by how much I like it. But The Other Half wins out for being both a polished, well balanced action game and a compelling story.
Foreshadowing is a deceptively difficult element to master. Balancing plot twists and messing with a player’s expectations without simply frustrating or misleading them, let alone being smug or hostile is a hell of a tall order, and most games would either fail or not even try. The Other Half bites off exactly as much as it can chew, and thoughtfully sprays crumbs across the, er, the table.
Look, that might have got away from me but I don’t want to spoil the plot, alright? It’d still be a decent game without it but it goes that extra mile with its thematic and emotional ambitions, and comfortably earns its place.