Change! It is as inevitable as it is clichéd. All things must change, from your town and workplace to your bank balance and attitude towards seagulls (they are brilliant). One thing that does not change, however, is the endless deluge of games from Steam, and my place writing Unknown Pleasures.
What, you thought because our conquest of Castle Shotgun has begun, we would leave behind the bloody indie death halls? Psh. Our regular round-up of the best obscure games on Steam is the source of my power.
Settling in for the long haul this week:
£5.79 / €6.59 / $8
Beraltors is the kind of thing that will alienate some of you. Some of you, though (the good ones), will find its oddness and humour hard to resist. I almost don’t want to talk about what happens in it, not because it rests on plot twists or discovery, but because translating it to our reality risks polluting it somehow.
Beraltors are sort of pokemon creatures inhabiting a 2D land that’s undergoing a terrible conquest by some sort of villain, who is also menacing your dad. You’re an oddly Elizabethan-garbed human who commands a troupe of Beraltors, but you may also be a Beraltor, I think? It’s silly. It’s very silly and I am currently pasting screenshots into the staff chat because (a) working here opens up a whole new avenue of being annoying and (b) its dialogue is full of the exact kind of playfully bonkers nonsense that I love.
Structurally it’s weaker. A basic platforming beat’em up in which whatever creatures you’ve brought along will pile on to whatever you’re fighting in a chaotic melee animated in a lolloping style made of paper cut outs. Defeating certain flavours of beraltor lets you shapeshift into one, and there’s a bit of light metroidvania going on as well. Unlocking all the beasties is a large part of the game, since you’re meant to be rescuing everyone from “that bad, big man”. If there was a stronger fighting core under it, I’d probably hang a pick of the week off it without hesitation, but for me the bewildered laughs it provided warmed my heart enough.
Free / Frei / Free, y’all
Ahem. Birdgut is a cute wee 2D platformer about being a bee who is cruelly cast out of the hive for looking all messed up. This slander against the good character of bees will not be forgotten. Your expressionless bee wanders off and is chomped by a massive bird, which like all birds houses not a digestive system but a complex factory in which insects serve as slave labour. Your off-brand bee is immune to the bird’s mind-altering affects however, so there’s nothing for it but to journey through its whole body and escape.
As platformers go it’s a low pressure one. You have a lot of jumping and dodging brainwashed bugs, but none of it’s very taxing and the checkpoints prevent too much repetition or endurance challenges. Half the game is clearing your path using levers and pushing objects and balancing beams and platforms, and its monochrome art is expressive rather than drab. I’d call it more amusing than funny – although a bit odd. If it lives in the same town as Beraltors, they almost never travel on the same bus.
I don’t think I have anything bad to say about it.
£2.09 / €2.39 / $3
“Logic puzzle” is a term weighted in my mind towards, bluntly, boredom. This is fairly irrational since basically all puzzles are logic puzzles. But let’s not use it anyway. Sinkr 2 is the long-absent Minimalist Puzzle Game Of The Week, despite being arguably not that minimalist. You complete levels by pulling shapes into holes with hooks. Each hook will initially pull in only one direction, and while I imagine some have multiple solutions, holes and shapes are positioned in such a way that you will have to work out the exact order to do things in or you’ll find a shape out of reach of your remaining hooks.
Its puzzle game pacing is excellent – new concepts, complications, and abilities are introduced with the customary simple level or two, then quickly assimilated into the following levels. Hooks can be flipped 180 degrees, intersecting ones can pull each other back and forth before detaching or flipping into position to reach a new shape. Some holes take multiple shapes or deny entry to squares. It – ahaha – you see, it – oh ho ho ho – it got its hooks in me – guffaw – quickly, and it never reached any extremes. I count that as a positive – while not particularly compulsive, demanding, or rewarding, it scores highly enough in all three fields to punch well above its weight. I often recommend puzzle games with some reluctance or caveats, but there’s neither here. I recommend trying to solve levels in your head before you start moving hooks around though – there is an ‘undo’ icon but its power is limited.
£8 / €10 / $10, early access
The ‘classic’ arcade-style street brawling genre is on the cusp of a revival, with many trying to recapture the appeal of Streets of Rage, The Simpsons arcade game, or that one with the guy in the yellow vest I played with three random kids on holiday in Spain after one of them put like £20 in the machine like a champion of legend. Most of these efforts are lacking, though. Often they look the part but struggle with that elusive sense of satisfaction and mild compulsion there is in the best of the urban face smackers. This here is an exception.
Saddled with a generic and somewhat misleading name, Infected Shelter is not about squatting in a corrugated hole while glumly eating beans. It is about running through endless streets, forests, and installations aggressively bashing zombies, construction workers, and cops in the face. Or hacking them up with a sword, blouncing their bones with a mace, frying them with tasers, bunging tires and barrels and chucking them around and goodness me there’s a lot of stuff to end people with.
It’s super gory but cartoonily enough to feel harmless. Stunning enemies allows a weapon-specific execution (the starter is a woman with a guitar, with which you can impale people because oh go on then), just about everything drops weapons, consumables, or thingies that unlock perks for later runs. A lot of these you’ll probably ignore for the most part since there’s not really time to be weighing the pros and cons of switching your guitar for one that adds 30% resistance to poison, but some are worth remembering.
Its difficulty is middling. I struggled a bit until I got a feel for how and when to dodge out of trouble, and realised how disposable and plentiful weapons are. It can suddenly get really rough, but healing items are supremely cheap in the occasional shops, and several perks outright resurrect you.
I imagine this could be terrific in co-op, but it’s unusually good even to the lone saddo in the office. They’re all so mean, readers. The Alices taunt me in chorus, it’s terrifying.
As We Know It
£15.49 / €20 / $20
Interactive Fiction of the Week is also back! As We Know It is more lighthearted than you’ll expect when I tell you about its setting. Your player character and narrator (whose surname is set to Phillips and first name is either Benglestrorn or BURGERS depending on which machine I’m on) has been accepted into an underground shelter after a lifetime of struggling to survive on the miserable, inhospitable surface with her mother. You’re given a week to settle in and meet everyone while you decide what job to take up in this society, during which your mum gets all starry-eyed about the mayor. Choices come often, and tend to come down to chumming up to someone or (civilly) brushing them off. There are also lots of situations where you choose between being sociable and staying in bed, and while she’s not obviously depressed, nor the kind of sourgut misanthrope you see in a lot of visual novels, BURGERS is wary and a little worn out by everyone.
This might simply be who she is, but it also makes sense given her back story, the telling of which is the game’s strength. Exposition is light and natural and told largely through context, and there are obvious hints that something is not quite as it seems here, but this too is hinted at rather than revealed outright. The drama, which I assume is coming, is certainly not frontloaded. Your choices reflect this best. They’re mostly minor in universe: Bengles might well choose to have a lie in rather than get up and have coffee, or work out alone rather than chat to a young girl. But as a player we can tell that they’re probably significant in terms of building character relationships and subplots.
It has a standard VN interface but with a few minor, excellent differences. Namely, you don’t just have a history screen recording prior text: you can directly rewind back to any screen just by flicking the mousewheel. You know when you’re skipping through text in a game and then get to a question or choice, but you don’t know the context of it so you have to go back and do it all again the slow and annoying way? Here you can both save at those points and go back to read what you missed without repeating anything. This demands to be the new standard.
£7.19 / €8.19 / $8
Are we still saying “Doom clones”? Some guy is on the phone from 1995. Hedon is perhaps missing the retro shooter boat, but goodness me it’s fun. It’s fairer to compare it to Hexen or Strife than Doom, as there’s a little more story and the levels are modelled after believable living and working spaces instead of mazes. A dwarven settlement complete with mines, pubs and prisons has been hit by a demonic cult, and it’s up to you to stop them. This is a very cheesy summary of its plot, which is delivered much more naturally in the game’s opening, to the point where the first level is an unusually long and largely action-free exploration of caves and tunnels.
Once it gets going though, things open up and your fists and axe are supplementing with assault rifles and shotguns, which work better than you’d think in what initially appears to be a traditional fantasy world. Starter monsters are knife-wielding cultists, big purple worms and fireball-spaffing dark wizards, and the shooting, sprinting, and axe-swinging mix together nicely. The slightly trying start, I’ll admit, meant I really lit up when I realised there was a shotgun later on, so we can count that as a success. Everything works pretty well, and the slightly maze-y levels are both justified and easy to navigate if you make sensible use of the dynamic map.
There’s a little backtracking but you move so fast it’s forgivable, and the consumables … probably do something? I forgot about them so much that I never tried them. But when the core shooting and exploring are enjoyable enough that you forget about other features entirely, you’re probably doing something right.
Beyond The Veil
£11.39 / €12.49 / $15
Ruling over the merciless arena of Unknown Pleasures can wear on your patience, readers. So many of the weakest combatants are also the biggest wasters of everyone’s time, clumsily setting a scene we’ve no reason to care about before oh look, the game’s terrible anyway. Games like Beyond The Veil sometimes suffer for their posturing. It’s not slow in action, but its narrative is, and its stark aesthetic is clearly meant as an abstraction. You’re meant to get into the mood for this one. In terms of tone and setting, it’s faintly reminiscent of a handful of other games, to the point where it’s reductive to list them. It hums with menace and dread. Not a scary game, nor one whose atmosphere is so heavy it stifles. But its low music and oppressive shadows convey an ominous, apocalyptic feeling throughout.
Each level is comparable to a roomlike, which is this week’s placeholder until I figure out a better shorthand for “multiple linked screens you methodically clear out until you find the boss and exit, like in, say, Binding of Isaac”. Here however instead of connected rooms, you travel to linked locations on a map, complete with travel time. At the centre is your camp, where you can craft basic supplies and improved armour, and in some of the locations are gates that you must clear out to move on to the next section. You’re a sort of Dark Tower-ish gunslinger, walking the probably-deserts and killing undead beasts, all in search of a necromancer who might explain what the hell is going on. Your revolver is a tad underpowered, by design, so you must balance staying still long enough to aim, wildly spraying, and ducking away to reload one bullet at a time.
£11.39 / €12.49 / $15
A Starcraftbut not really. Iron Marines is implicitly inspired by, but not modelled on, Starcraft, as your grizzled space marines and their chunky robots jet about fighting gacky zerg-y aliens. That’s basically where the similarity ends though, as this is a more linear RTS. Each level has a target or two to attack or capture, and clearing out nests of aliens usually increases your unit count and rock storage/intake. You need more rocks, but they come automatically – resource management is kept to the background, base building is limited to choosing which turret type will go in the predefined spots. Your unit count is always low, but “units” can be comprised of a trio of soldiers – it’s having its cake and eating it, in a way.
It isn’t the full on “puzzle level” affair that some of its peers become. You probably know the sort, where there’s only really one way to win and you have to figure it out. Iron Marines is more open than that, no more so than when picking your hero. Before starting a level you choose your hero unit, who’ll have their basic attack plus two special abilities, which reset on a timer and can be upgraded with experience. One is good for bombing structures, one self-heals and makes short work of crowds in a melee. When they die they come back a minute later too, as do your soldier trios, provided they’re not obliterated entirely. You can also instantly recall your hero to orbit if they’re in trouble, although I often forget and have to peg it back to base while a dozen aliens Benny Hill behind us.
It’ll appeal to people just like me, who have historically loved RTS games but find them a bit wearying in practice, demanding too much babysitting and busywork, or simply being too complicated and unforgiving to get into.
Pick of the week: It’s Hedon.
Hedon defied comfortable description because while obviously similar to several of its heroes, it has enough of its own identity to feel new, and calling it a clone or remake would be unfair. I went from being unsure to enjoying it more the longer I played, and kept wanting to elbow Matt and make him marvel at my cultist-hacking skills.
I can elbow him any time now. I can elbow anyone I want. Truly, the dream is real.
[It is not policy that Sin can elbow anyone – ed.]