Steam returns with actual hundreds of free demos for its Autumn Festival. I am but one woman, so I could never get through them all, but I have played what I would characterise as a lot over the past two days. My own personal labour of Hercules was undertaken so that I could bring you, the reader, a list of my favourite demos to provide, if not an exhaustive list, then at least a jumping off point.
I’ve got something for all of yez, gentle pals. Puzzle games? RPGs? Action? Strategy? Why yes, even that. I’ve got an EDM murder rave, dressing up in pre-revolutionary Paris, ripping up legal documents as a cute turnip, and rodents you should live in fear of. So many games! Your favourite is sure to be among them.
I’ve prioritised games that aren’t out on PC yet and that I haven’t demoed before, so we’re keeping hot n’ fresh. As such, this doesn’t include demos for games I am already looking forwards to or already know I like, including Ring Of Pain, Haven, Gamedec, Manifold Garden, and Kine. All of these have demos in the Fest, and all are worth your time (the latter two being already out via the Epic Games Store). It also doesn’t include Cats Organized Neatly, cos Nat got to it before me. But it would have been on this list otherwise, so I’m saying it also counts as a best of fest.
If you have any standouts to recommend, please throw them in the comments! But otherwise, here are mine:
What is it? Part noir mystery visual novel, part (very) detailed business management set in an alternate 2021 where everyone loves a) the 1920s and b) coffee.
Who’s it by? DOJI, NAOS Software
When is it out? Q4 2020
In TV shows where cops go undercover, there’s often a bit where they forget which side they’re on. They get in too deep. I am fairly convinced that by the end of Coffee Noir (full name: Coffee Noir – Business Detective Game. But please, my father is Mr. Business Detective Game), private detective Arthur Oliver will have realised that micromanaging a coffee supply company is his real passion. He’ll sack off the case – one where the daughter of his dead ex-lover has hired him to find her missing coffee tycoon father – and concentrate on the efficiency of his supply chains instead.
The coffee management bit of Coffee Noir is surprisingly granular (unlike the coffee, one hopes). You have to go to meetings with potential clients, upsell your services and haggle over contracts. Then you have to make sure you’re producing and supplying everything you need, assign workers to various tasks, and every so often remember that you’re also apparently a detective and should look at your clue board, or whatever. Honestly, by the end of the demo I was more invested in the coffee business as well, and wished that the case would stop interrupting with its comic book inspired cutscenes.
What is it? A game of social climbing, delicate conversation and dressing to impress in pre-revolutionary Paris.
Who’s it by? Joy Manufacturing Co., Humble Games
When is it out? “All in due time…”
When I say pre-revolutionary, I mean by a matter of months. You chip up in Paris in the spring of 1789 at the behest of your fiancé, only to find said bloke has been AWOL from his home and society for some weeks. Though you are but a provincial girl, you have to immediately start navigating Paris society, collecting gossip and intrigues that could be useful, and fluttering your eyes at any dishy men that could help you climb the social ladder.
You have a level of Peril and Credibility to keep an eye on, which I suspect will have an effect on the ending you might get, but in the demo there are some conversational gambits that require, for example, you be a certain amount of credible. It’s also fun seeing what the outcomes are: a man was a dickhead to me at a party, so I insulted him back. It added to my Peril, but the people at the party enjoyed it.
Best ’til last, though: what you wear is hugely important. Different social circles approve of different types of dress, and if you wear the same gown twice in a row you’ll suffer for it. There’s a whole dressing up game to be played in tandem with your careful social navigating.
What is it? Action-adventure game set in ancient India with impressive, acrobatic combat.
Who’s it by? Nodding Heads Games, Super.com
When is it out? October 15th 2020
Raji is already out on Switch, but it has a little more to go before PC launch. Being chosen as the saviour of mankind is a lot of pressure for a young woman, but Raji seems up to the task. Demons are invading the human realm, and after her brother Golu is kidnapped, Raji sets off to get him back and defeat the demon lord Mahabalasura. Because Raji was a gifted acrobat before she was a hero, the combat in this is correspondingly quick and high-flying. Raji spins, jumps, flips and impales with admirable grace. The isometric 3D viewpoint can be a little awkward in a punch up, but otherwise it’s a grand old time to run up a wall and smash yer spear down on a demon’s head.
The setting is also very lovely, and the cutscenes, which are styled like paper shadow puppets, are beautiful. Plus, I learned a bunch of cool Hindu mythology in just the short space of the demo. I came across a series of murals depicting a specific myth, and narrators Vishnu and Durga (two important gods in the pantheon) told the story as I climbed around them. It’s refreshing during a period where we seem very keen on retreading Greek/Roman/Viking myths.
What is it? First-person horror-me-do that some clumsy fool dropped their bulk order of glowsticks all over.
Who’s it by? Green Tile Digital
When is it out? October 28th 2020
As a concept, ‘going to an EDM rave in some isolated woods’ is already my idea of actual horror, so best foot forwards from Strobophagia. As you may imagine, while the party is pretty good vibes and chill when you turn up, albeit everyone is in a disturbing neon bodysuit, things swiftly get creepy. There are separate ritual areas where you complete unsettling puzzles and hear horrible noises. People keep telling you to stay in the light. Oh good.
Your main tool here is actually your phone. Each area of the rave has its own LAN to join, and you get cryptic instructions texted to you by an anonymous dobadder, as well as larger discussions with other rave-goers about how this might all be a bit much, actually?
I’m not convinced Strobophagia will do much to radically innovate on the first-person scare fest as a genre, but it does have a strong USP. I can’t tell you how overjoyed I was to play one of these that isn’t set in a Catholic girls school or an abandoned manor haunted by someone’s mam, where I have to spend all my time collecting the torn out pages of the same fucking diary.
What is it? Firewatch, but with extremely suspicious squirrels.
Who’s it by? Joon, Pol, Muutsch, Char & Torfi, Noodlecake
When is it out? 2021
Whenever my mother and I saw a squirrel when I was little, she would comment with a curious zealotry that grey squirrels are an invasive species that have almost wiped out our native reds, the little bastards. In Nuts, however, it is most definitely the red squirrels wot are up to no good.
Sent to observe their natural behaviour, you’re set up in a little self contained research pod in Melmoth forest (my suspicions were immediately aroused at this because I recently read Melmoth by Sarah Perry), and given instructions and some equipment like remote cameras. With these, you film the squirrels’ nocturnal habits, print photos, and send them back to your research overlords.
The squirrels show up starkly against the mostly teal backdrop of the forest, but it’s still a fun puzzle to track where they go – a process that can take several nights of fine tuning. And it certainly ends on a strange, perhaps even sinister enough note that you’ll want to keep playing past the bounds of the demo.
What is it? Text-based, slightly creepy adventure about controlling your ancestral wolf rage, from the same World Of Darkness tabletop game universe that birthed Bloodlines.
Who’s it by? Different Tales, Walkabout
When is it out? October 13th 2020
I know everyone’s mileage varies with text adventures, but Heart Of The Forest here is a great example of the genre done very well. You play as Maia, who has come to her estranged father’s home town in Poland to try and uncover the secrets of her heritage there. Player knowledge vs. character knowledge means that we already have a pretty good idea of what that heritage is, but that doesn’t make it less fun to sort of wryly navigate Maia through it.
A key factor is Maia’s rage, as well as her willpower. You can earn and spend both as you explore the town and surrounding area – the old abandoned wolf den in the forest, for example. Do you feel more for the abandoned mother, or her stolen pups that died in captivity? Rage and willpower change what sort of options you have, dialogue and otherwise, but the choices also affect the sort of person your specific version of Maia is.
It helps that the UI is very slick, so it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book on a screen, and the whole thing is accompanied by strong, minimally animated bits of art that chime very well with Maia’s emotional state.
What is it? Tactical Card battler where you are a streamer and your opponent is your audience. No, wait, come back!
Who’s it by? Ultaan Games
When is it out? “Later in 2020”
You may find the name and concept off putting, but this was one of my favourites of my favourites. You play as an aspiring streamer, and part of the game is balancing that with, you know, life. You have to pay rent, so early on, when your stream isn’t making money, you’ll probably have to go to work a ‘real’ job. These can be a drain on your mental health, which functions as your starting HP for a battle, so you have to take time to rest too.
Ah yes, the battles. When you stream, your audience is your opponent – the HP meter you’re trying to drain is their demand for you to do interesting stuff, and the attacks you weather are trolls being mean. Your action points to play your own moves are represented as toxicity – so if you play a devastating triple kill feat, it will do more damage at the same time as raising the toxicity of your stream. But the more toxic your stream is, the less ad friendly it might be. Think of your affiliate programme! Perhaps better to play a simple Dad Joke instead…
I’m not usually a fan of a card battle, but the way this one integrates real life vs. job life vs. dreams is really interesting, and I really want to play more.
What is it? Lovecraftian X-COM (for ‘X-COM soldiers’ read ‘divers’, for ‘aliens’ read tentacles and for ‘Avenger base’ read ‘leaking submarine’).
Who’s it by? Sleepy Sentry, K-Project, Slitherine Ltd.
When is it out? Q4 2020
Everyone and his tentacled dog is on the Lovecraft train these days. Choo choo, everyone aboard for cosmic horror junction! Next stop, a comment reminding us all he was massively racist. I didn’t detect any of that latter grimness being adapted for Stirring Abyss, though, at least not in the demo. Like most sensible works that like a bit of the ol’ HP Sauce, it’s really just using Lovecraftian as a short hand for grim sea creatures and eldritch magics.
In this case, a navy research sub has encountered something unspecified and horrible, so you have to repair and improve it while going on missions to discover what the hap is heckening. These involve your squad, clad in big old-timey diver suits, moving and double moving across the grid that is the ocean floor, and dispatching squiggly enemies of a jellyfish nature. You have all the hits: reloading your spear gun taking a whole action, melee range, chance to hit. But there’s fun new stuff to take into account, like your oxygen levels.
What is it? An extremely dystopian kinda Papers, Please but instead of manning a border you are manning a device to forcibly diagnose and then excise mental illness.
Who’s it by? The Outer Zone, Brave At night
When is it out? Early 2021
Could go either way, this one, eh? It is, of course, set in a retro-dystopian megacity called The Structure. The Structure seems to be both a place and an oppressive system of government, since it has your daughter hostage and is making you do all this mind scanning business. Much like Papers, Please, you have bills to pay and quotas to meet, plus the choice of earning the trust of The Structure or helping a mysterious rebel organisation.
You get money for every so called “anomaly citizen” you diagnose, but you get much less for finding someone sane than for finding them insane and treating them. Treatment comes in the form of excising the insanity with a series of arcadey machines, like one that sort of sucks the mental illness out of your patients mouth. The trouble is that extensive treatment also removes a big dose of someone’s personality. It’s a good demo – the medical machines in particular are weird and have all sorts of wires and suckers and close ups of eyes. But I couldn’t entirely tell from the demo whether Mind Scanners actually has anything to say about mental health or medication.
What is it? Space-race puzzle game where the little drone pilot that could has to push space station modules together.
Who’s it by? Pixel Delusion, Modern wolf
When is it out? “Coming this year, Comrade”
Setting aside that it would surely be nice if we had a game set in retro-space that wasn’t immediately about Communist Russians and all the tired stereotypes thereof, Kosmokrats is a fun puzzle game that combines doing a jigsaw with doing a jigsaw beset by floaty physics. Your drone pilot is instructed to put together bits of space station as required, by using a little flying drone to push together tetronimo-esque chunks floating about in the void of space.
They have different coloured connector panels that will snap together once they’re close enough, and other objectives for each level (don’t squish any cosmonauts, don’t damage the potato storage, save as many pods full of new recruits as possible, etc and so on). Learning the turning tolerance of your drone, and where to push or pull on the bits of space station, gives you a real sense of accomplishment. I’m the best drone pilot ever, dammit. I can see it staying fun for a lot longer than the length of the demo.
What is it? V. funny action-adventure with a bit of RPG. You are a turnip boy in a world of sentient fruits and vegetables, and you like ripping up contracts and killing snails with your wooden sword.
Who’s it by? Snoozy Kazoo, Graffiti Games
When is it out? 2021
Another of my absolute favourites from the demos I played, Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion seems to have been written by someone with a sense of humour quite close to my own, so I enjoyed it a lot. The titular root boy is harangued by the local Oniony mayor into doing him favours, because of the aforementioned tax evasion. In the first instance this is killing a large and angry pig, which means Turnip Boy has to go and get a sword. After I got the sword I met a blueberry who was upset that his snail friend had been staying with him rent free, and since by this point it had been established that snails (being herbivores) were my enemy, I naturally stabbed the snail to death to solve the problem. The blueberry was then very upset, but he cheered up when I gave him the rent money. The snail had been planning to pay all along :'( RIP
Tonally and game design wise it seems to be like a handheld Zelda game, but a bit memey – just not in an obnoxious way. Turnip Boy can use a watering can to grow explosive tomatoes, and the small dungeon in the demo involved kicking the tomatoes around and getting timing right. But I was delighted by the whole thing, especially the optional hats I could get for TB, and the little squeaky sucker noise his feet made.
What is it? The prince of an ailing and attacked space kingdom goes out to save his people via FTL-esque encounter hopping and top-down spaceship battles.
Who’s it by? Spiritus Games
When is it out? 2021
I know the sort of reaction people have when you mention FTL in any context, so I will temper expectations by saying Fabular isn’t that much like FTL. But it does have the encounter hopping, where your prince and his beetley spaceship explore the increasingly dark and dangerous outer reaches of space. Sometimes you meet a nice family and they give you dinner, or a cantankerous old hermit. Other times: deserters! Marauders!
This is when it switches to top down combat, usually against the backdrop of an asteroid field. Fabular succeeds at feeling distinctly medieval, so the dogfights seem more like jousts. Your starting spaceship is equipped with two massive swords, and the ranged attack only has a few shots in it (though you can use money you find to upgrade and improve things). I was very bad at the combat, and couldn’t figure out how I could repair or resupply between fights, but Fabular is also a roguelike. You know what they say: if at first you don’t succeed, return to your ailing and unhappy father’s court and try again.
What is it? Oddly charming, slightly goffic point and click adventure that brings some good jokes and some good puzzles.
Who’s it by? Caligari Games, WhisperGames
When is it out? 2021
I think it’s in my contract that I get to write about at least one point and click puzzle adventure per round up. There are a few knocking around the Autumn fest, but Whateverland, for whateverreason, is the one that spoke to me the most. Protagonist Vincent is a cat burglar who robs what he thinks is a lonely old lady, only to discover it is actually a powerful witch who banishes him to a kind of neverland but for people and things she doesn’t like. Everyone cast that gradually changes to a form representing their true nature, which is why you end up talking to a giant Raven and pick up a sidekick with ghost legs but a normal torso.
I really enjoyed the self-aware tone, and the whimsy in the art and puzzles that never quite got into annoying Noel Fielding territory. The puzzles themselves, quite crucial in a point and click, usually have two solutions: a nice one, where you help people out and do favours, or a naughty one, where you, for example pick a lock for a shortcut. But at what karmic cost!
What is it? A bit soulslikey action-RPG featuring a naïve protagonist who is equal parts terrifying and endearing.
Who’s it by? Laughing Machines, tinyBuild
When is it out? Q4 2020
I found the combat in Undungeon a little too hard (by which I mean I kept getting killed by trash-level scorpion mobs) but I really love the concept on this one. You play as a kind skeletal Skesis monster created from nothing, by some faintly malevolent presence, and are sent out to collect six seals by dimension hopping to different worlds. The demo only has bits of the dry, Dune-esque desert planet to explore, but there are loads of side quests to uncover, and getting new gear and other bits and pieces relies on doing an actual bartering system with merchants, which is fab.
I also found your character, who self-christens as Void, very very endearing. They are a child, essentially, who knows nothing, and despite looking terrifying, like a python ate a crocodile and a deer and sicked up the bones into something new, Void is very open and curious. I hope there is the possibility for a happy ending.
What is it?
“Fuck you, pay me”: the video game Try and get a whole town to revolt by hook, crook, bribery, blackmail, or an increasingly complicated series of cascading favours that will get out of hand.
Who’s it by? Rain Games
When is it out? 16th October 2020
I wasn’t entirely clear on my motivations, apart from them being the same as my motivations in real life, I guess, but in Mesmer you are tasked with getting the titular city to unite in revolution against its cruel leader. There are several factions (workers, merchants and the like) to get on side, by doing various tasks for different members. The key is that if you promise something, you really do need to deliver.
How you deliver can vary. I was given some blackmail on an important merchant to try and squeeze him for a donation for the striking cannery workers. In the end that still wasn’t enough to convince him (it being partly up to chance, with a kind of Wheel Of Fortune mechanic) so I had to do a favour for him, which involved getting some hired muscle, but then the muscle also wanted a favour which turned into asking a bunch of different merchants to rescind a complaint about him, who all had their own potential favours to ask.
In the end, I missed the deadline for getting the donation to the works. Woah oh. Good stuff.