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Unknown Pleasures: access early, access often

Our pick of the best new indie games on Steam

Featured post I almost had a four for four on the 'staring eyes' tag this week, but those images weren't as interesting. Instead, have some boring alt-text... now.

Oh, the many things I cannot tell you, readers! They are many, and they are things. One thing I can tell you is that argh, howl, yes, I am indeed working on the enormous pile of hundreds upon hundreds of indie games that are surely aiming to destroy me. The second thing is that it’s time once more for the world famous round-up of the best indie games on Steam that, round here, we call Unknown Pleasures.

Maintaining a stoic silence this week: spikey frights, fighty tykes, and flighty sprites.

Talk To Strangers
£2.89 / €3.29€ / $4

Sales! I used to work in sales, you know. Well, actually it was a pharmacy, so I considered my job to be, y’know, helping people, but try explaining that to the owner who insists you bellow personal questions at everyone who comes in the door. Even the ones who don’t speak English and are visibly terrified. Talk To Strangers is not entirely unlike that. You’re a sales mook who must visit houses and try to convince, cajole, or trick people into buying the mystery products you’re selling, without having a breakdown or getting murdered. No, really.

It’s a short game and easier to grasp than to describe structurally. Each house visit takes up one of four periods of the day, and either results in a sale or a slammed door depending on your choice of dialogue. Depression and Rage rise when you’re frustrated or abused, so some periods will be spent trying to relax in the park, sleeping late, or retreating to your motel room and fighting off the black dog. You can also buy items to manage your levels, and I think – I think directly influence some sales, but I’m not sure yet. It’s one of those where the idea is less to ‘win’ than it is to play over and over to explore different angles and approach each house at different times and in different ways to see what you can uncover.

This town, you see, is weird. One house is home to an evil cultist. Another to a scientist and their robot. One woman answers the door with huge enthusiasm but somehow I always manage to offend her at the last moment (making this technically a dating sim for some of us).

It’s cute and mildly subversive, if ultimately harmless. It evokes that feeling some games do, that there’s some secret hidden away that you just need to try one more playthrough to get at.

Xenomarine
£8 / €10 / $10

It is like Rogue. Nobody actually plays Rogue, so that can mean whatever we want. In Xenomarine’s case, it means procedurally generated levels, turn-based griddy exploration, (optional) permadeath, and a general sense of being hosed at every turn.

It’s refreshingly set in space, rather than the same ‘fantasy’ land as literally every other game, although beyond that there’s little to say about the setting. Alien worms, facehuggers, and some sort of… translucent frog, I think? They’re not all that interesting, and the art and sound are workmanlike. But the loop is there. The eagerness to survive one more level, the curiosity about what’s in that crate, the semi-fluid plans about what skills to bank on, and what equipment to grind into crafting powder.

Levels are small enough that they don’t feel a chore, and it gives you information rather than expecting you to risk instant death on the off chance that an item will help you. Instead of classes you’re free to upgrade your character along skill lines that grant special bonuses rather than just bigger numbers.

I don’t think there’s anything special going on here, but it has a solid, respectable frame and I imagine just about anyone reading would at least get a few hours’ enjoyment out of it.

One nitpick: it could do with a directional indicator for the audio cues.

Zombotron
£11.39 / €12.49 / $15

Is it poor form to admit I was half expecting to lose interest in this very quickly? 2D action platformer/shooter hybrids are rather prone to that, see. Zombotron was a pleasant surprise though. You’re a space explorer/marine/honestly I forget but it’s not that important. Jumping out of your little drop ship to investigate a big old metal ruin, you’re quickly set upon by alien monsters that, for all our sakes, I’m not going to call “zombies”. The game insists they are, but (a) calling them that will put off as many people as it tempts, and (b) they don’t look it or act like it, really.

While your basic monsters jog up and wave their claws about, others don masks and throw spears, which counter-intuitively are best defeated by a melee charge. Although you could also pap them with your pistol or perhaps you’ve found a nice submachine gun by now? Or maybe shooting that strut will collapse some rubble onto their heads? It’s that sort of game. Weapon variety is, well, middling. No real surprises, but I found a combination I liked (double barrelled shotgun + a big stick. Range is for cowards) and was tempted by guns in the occasional vending machines. It’s no Diablo, as the fun comes from the shooting and jumping and bashing heads in more than the equipment itself. Stat upgrades are basic too, but it all works fine – after several generations of upgrading and statting everything, it’s a pleasant change to focus largely on blasting through a level without constantly fretting about incremental efficiency updates.

I particularly appreciate how many boxes and wooden platforms disintegrate and crush hapless enemies, often due to their own actions. And that some aliens fight each other – this is always welcome in a game and deserves recognition even if it makes very little practical difference.

Himno
Free / Frei / Free, y’all

Quite why some jumping games are dull and others satisfying is one of those “dissecting the frog” things that comes up in games uncomfortably often. Himno isn’t difficult, or “rewarding” in the material sense. There’s no story, no unlockables, no points, collectibles, or power ups. You simply jump, dizzy, for the sheer joy of jumping. Each level is randomly generated, and full of gems that are invisible but sparkle and chime invitingly when you get close. Gather enough gems and you’ll reach another level, which doesn’t do a lot but does mean you can free glowing sprites from their pedestals when you find them.

What do the sprites do? I’m honestly not sure. Some of them float around you for a while, and one I think helps you jump higher or do a little dash. They seem to go away after a while, but it’s all so… peaceful. it’s not a particularly beautiful game, but it’s pretty and calming, and the absence of threat (barring the water at the bottom, but it will only take ten minutes before you’re adept enough to avoid that easily) makes for a different experience to the usual (ugh) “hardcore” platformer one.

It’s faintly compulsive, but in a healthy way, like stroking a labrador’s snout.

Burned Land
£19.49 / €21 / $25, Early access

Two screenshots for one game is probably over-generous, but 4X games get a raw deal, and this way you get to see statto samples and more variety in the header image. These are the things I think about at 4am. FOR YOU.

4X games, I’ve probably said before, are one of many difficult genres to judge in the code-soaked murderhall that is Unknown Pleasures. Burned Land enters its Early Access period quite convincingly, and its promised premise of attracting the attention of, and eventually fighting the gods is enticing for someone who admired Colonisation and AI War. The general idea is to develop your civilisation to the point where it inevitably angers the judgemental cloud-lounging psychopaths, but I’ve not had the time to reach that point.

The opening, however, has been enjoyable enough, and I’m tempted to add a complaint that it was a little opaque there, but I actually enjoyed and was quite able to figure it out as I went. You control a single city, and each turn get one action to devote to training a unit, building something, or carrying out some sort of civil action. It was a while before I realised settler units don’t exist because you can build remotely – if your scouts discover an ore deposit, you can build the mine in the city and plonk it down there instead of having to faff about with multiple towns. Scouts also build roads automatically as they go, making life easier for the frankly underpowered militia you’ll be stuck with for a long while. Developing your economy is rather slow, and pinned to resources which seem a bit hard to find, and the roving bandits are really quite tough (but it turns out you can and should combine units into bigger ones, although fielding so many stabmen itself costs a lot of food). Having to repair roads and shunt units about was a bit of a chore, mind.

Your main town and society’s development must be managed a bit too – advancement costs stability, which is difficult to raise, and random events pop up with some minor dilemmas. I like it so far, is all I can really say. It’s familiar but does things a little differently to most of its peers, and I’m particularly keen to see another game reverse the power dynamic in the late game like Sid Meier’s ancient conquist-em-up did.

A Legionary’s Life
£6.10 / €7 / $8, Early access

Rome should have got another series or two and Game of Thrones should have given up years ago. These are the facts. I am but a conduit for irrelevant truths. A Legionary’s Life is honest. You’re a legionary in the Punic wars, in which Rome and Carthage fought to the death using the most savage wordplay ever seen, except here for some reason you’re made to use swords and javelins. It’s fiction so we’ll allow it.

Your soldier is randomly generated, then left at camp to train up or hang around or suck up to the bosses as you see fit while everyone waits for a battle. It’s probably one of the most realistic war games ever in this regard – much of a campaign is spent preparing rather than fighting, as however disciplined and lucky you are, it ultimately will come down to you vs some other rando trying to stick things in each other in the least sexy way possible. If your training went well, and your morale is good, and you perhaps got lucky in looting or gambling up enough money to buy better weapons, you ought to come out on top. But it’s tricky, and a single slip up can be all it takes.

The combat is excellent, and really tense. Higher skills and stats make your attacks more likely to land, but the most important thing is your footing. Your successful feints and your enemy’s failed attacks will throw their stance off, represented by a blue circle. The more you can chip away at that circle while bolstering your own, the more hosed the other sucker is – your attacks will land vastly more easily, and they’ll have to waste precious turns trying to regain control instead of fighting back. Every fight is dangerous and tense, and while some see you sorely outmatched, you can usually hunker down and hope to simply survive long enough for friends to show up or the battle to move away from you both.

It does get sharply more difficult if your character joins a second campaign, and I’m a little leery of its character creation – points you acquire in previous games can be converted to stat points for new characters, at a dismal exchange rate. But that’s one of the things that Early Access is for, so let’s be fair and give it a chance.

Exogenesis ~Perils of Rebirth~
£23.79 / €25 / $30, Early access

Whereas this one would have gone in the header. But then you'd get a boring row of quite similar-looking people, and you wouldn't see the dialogue because of the shape of th.... look, these things take thought, is the point. This is why I don't do video. That and the constant slander.

Not sure whether Exogenesis is mocking livejournal culture or those tildes are sincere, but I really enjoyed it so let’s concentrate on that instead. A hybrid of the already close visual novel and adventure genres, it drops the player in to guide a young boy as he scavenges for supplies in… somewhere after… something. And he’s worried about his younger sister, who’s stopped talking to anyone because of… something.

It works. It works really well – the vast majority of VNs, especially those with an obvious anime influence, would start this story with acres of exhausting Tolkienism, narrating us to death long before we have a chance to start caring about anyone involved. Exogenesis credits us with some perception instead, sets up the immediate situation and basic relationship of the three main characters, and lets the rest come naturally as each scene develops. You’re scraping by in an apparently unpleasant world, surviving as most kids have to, by proving yourselves useful to whatever settlement has taken you in. The lead’s still young enough to be naive instead of bitter about the raw deal, but he’s no fool, and it’s clear that his dutiful, optimistic outlook is going to break eventually – either because of the suspiciously authoritarian characters around him, or because of his guilt over whatever it was he did that put his sister in such a state.

It does fall foul of the ellipsis plague, although only mildly, and it has a ridiculous habit of talking about girls as though they’re unknowable alien beings, but it’s benign with it. The artwork is impressive, and it boasts strong voice acting and some puzzles that are interestingly based on paying attention to what you’re told in addition to rubbing everything in sight against everything else until a door opens. And that scene setting is impressive – I’ve enough of an idea to understand what’s happening around me, but enough questions about the situation beyond that to keep playing.

You Died but a Necromancer revived you
£8 / €9 / $9

I hate this game. But it’s not because the game’s doing anything wrong. It’s just completely Not My Thing, and that means I can’t enjoy what is obviously going to be a great laugh for some of you.

You Died but etc is a (sigh) “hardcore” platformer without the platforms. Seen from above, your little zippy undead person must dash around a series of randomly-generated levels full of deadly traps without getting hit. Taking away the jumps is a relief but also takes away the scapegoat of insisting that you pressed jump then (which you completely did, really) and leaves you with only your reflexes and your dopey, panicking, simultaneously over- and under-thinking skullfoam. It’s generally your own fault when you ‘die’. All the traps are predictable and operate very simply – indeed, it’s often the unassuming, easily avoided, casually rotating blade one that catchs me out – but the combination of two or three, let alone seven or eight on screen at once is entirely too much for my already overloaded brain. And of course after a few seconds the path starts collapsing behind you. Argh.

It’s fair. You’ll sometimes get a really cruel combination of traps, but when you die you go back a few screens at worst, and difficulty can be switched up and down at will (with a corresponding change in checkpointing). It’s usually your own fault for losing your cool, or succumbing to my personal curse, target fixation. It’s worth noting that trap placements are re-randomised every time you die, so it’s about skill and reflexes, and planning and thinking on the fly rather than rote memorisation. Also that all traps are visible.

It could do with a faster respawn, though – it takes a few seconds to restart, and that tends to get annoying in these games.

Onirism
£14 / €15 / $18, Early access

Goodness this is a pretty thing. Cutesy 3D action platformers are, I suspect, a lot harder to make than a 3D shooty game as they rely so heavily on art direction and intangible things like charm and style. Onirism is easily one of the best I’ve seen, and unlike most it also lets you get started right away instead of endlessly tutorialising or dragging you round a village you’re only going to leave forever as soon as the plot starts.

You play as Carol, a girl who’s minding her own business when a portal opens in her room and a monster steals her teddy bear. Being four feet of stone cold badass, she immediately dives in after it and sets about slamming the hell out of everything that stands in her way. It’s tonally a little bit weird – I’ve one screenshot of Carol posing with her hairdryer gun (yes) and gleefully promising to hurt someone – and this is matched by its surprisingly difficulty level. Enemies hit harder than you’d guess, and even the first (and apparently optional, in fairness) jumping-heavy side challenge area was surrounded by instant-death water and semi-snipey monsters. “Death” merely sets you back to checkpoints at least, but health pickups are unpredictable and those jumpy bits were longer than I was expecting. Perhaps that’s on me for assuming it would be easy, though.

It’s shaping up well, and if nothing else the sheer novelty of a young girl brutalising orcs with a nerf shotgun and a pink umbrella is worth a salute.

Dark Devotion
£17.49 / €20 / $20

Iiiiiiiit’s Dark Souls again! Except that’s really not fair. But I hate Dark Souls, so I don’t care. Dark Devotion is more strictly 2D than, say, Shrouded in Sanity. You’re a stabby Templar jerk who’s had their day ruined and must now scrape their way out of a strange temple full of surprisingly helpful NPCs, despite their obvious antipathy for your kind. You’re given more direction than usual, and your first few jobs at least will be simple matters of clearing out nearby areas of undead. Combat does what you’d expect. Most weapons have either one slow heavy attack or a short combination one, blocking or parrying is a vital skill, and the standard over the top, horrible-joint-injury-inviting combat roll will be your new best friend.

Managing your stamina is key, but it’s replenished, and your character moves fairly quickly, which feels on the more forgiving and less ponderous side. Health is an interesting case – instead of a granular health bar you get a few hearts, and armour that, depending on what you equip, adds another couple of virtual hearts on top (which I would wager can be penetrated by some attacks, but I’ve yet to see one). Both can be replenished with potions or repair kits. Another interesting spin on the formula overlaps with this, as chugging too many potions in succession penalises you with temporary debuffs. Conversely, you can gain short-term bonuses for particularly flashy runs, or killing a lot of monsters. It’s not as long-running, but its reactiveness to your playstyle reminded me of Alpha Protocol’s many little perks. It’s the kind of small-scale organic upgrade system that I rather enjoy in action games, even if it did leave me very ambivalent about getting a perk that prevented bleeding damage because I was bleeding so much. Bleeding was really goddamn annoying though, so win-win?

Dying costs you all your gear, but that’s easily found (and you get to carry two weapon sets. I’m quite partial to the slashy claws you can loot from one of the earliest attackers). More annoying is the need to run around the ranch collecting another starting equipment set, then back to the portal, instead of reappearing there.

Pick of the week: A Legionary’s Life snuck up on me.

Spartacus colon Blood and Sand was good too, once you got 3 or 4 episodes in and it figured out what it was doing. Very silly and very homoerotic and gloriously brutal when the rich lads finally got what they deserved.

It’s the humility of it, I think. You can chase personal glory, but unless you’re lucky and smart about it, this is a surprisingly realistic treatment of ancient warfare. Each individual soldier will perhaps kill one or two people and injure six more over a whole campaign, even with backup. Simply giving someone a new orifice is enough to gain a bit of recognition, and unless a battle goes terribly you’ll be cycled off the front line after a couple of sword-offs (or a long single one). You might get promoted if you do well, or score a good trophy or accolade. But there’s no shame in simply keeping an enemy soldier busy while the army as a whole does its thing, then going home. Surviving a campaign and opting out of joining the next is an oddly wholesome way to end even a successful career.

I’ve just realised that if I say there’s no subtext to that, I’ll only make it seem more like there is one. Curse your stupid jokes, Past Sin.

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Who am I?

Sin Vega

Staff Writer

Nocturnal remembrer of ancient oddities and curator of unlikely treasures. When not destroying roguelikes with her laser eyes Sin can be found muttering to basils and probably moving house again.

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