Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures, our weekly digest of the best new games released on Steam over the past seven days, but which most probably flew under your radar.
This time: Pong with 500 balls, XCOM meets SUPERHOT, house-trashing wizards, the not quite so fantastical Mr Fox and feline Zelda.
($11.99, £8.99, Early Access)
Top-down, twin stickish third-person horror-shooter, which reminds me a little of the old noughties Hunter: The Reckoning on Xbox and Gamecube. The Chinese-English translation is all kinds of messy, but hey, how much do you really need to be able to read when the challenge is to shoot/whack capering baddies, dodge explosions and collect new weapons? Pretty glossy for what it is, and that makes it exactly the sort of thing you'd happily have dropped thirty bones on back in 2003 or so, but with the added benefit of procedurally generated maps to keep you going endlessly. It's in Early Access so there's scope for a ton of new stuff to be added, as well as hopefully sorting out that lousy translation.
($15.99/£11.99, Early Access)
Super-stylish tactics game, which sticks XCOM and SUPERHOT into a blender, resulting in a delicious broth of turn-based strategy and time-manipulating action. On top of that, the entire game is set to the insistent beat of a darkly cyberpunkish soundtrack, your character moving tile-by-tile in time with the music, Crypt Of The Necrodancer style. Looks the part too, with an aesthetic that's like a more grounded and darker version of Shadowrun Returns, and a plot which concerns time-travelling agents sent back from 2089 in order to ensure the Cold War does not continue to rage until a lethal conclusion in 2089. Proc-gen levels and some light-touch RPG decision-making are in the mix too, and all told it's an impressive first volley from the Early Access cannon.
I would say that the rules of time-rewinding and what constitutes a fatal death rather than one you can rewind from are poorly explained at present, but I'm sure that can be finessed in time. I'll definitely be climbing over this particular wall again.
Wizardly third-person action game with massively destructible scenery (you can fireball a house into splinters from the get-go) and a novel 'spell-shaping' system in which you can spend your mana to specify, for example, whether your magic-o-blasts are explosive, high-range or multi-shot, depending on the type and number of enemy you face.
Fictorum looks a little bit ropey, and the over-excited soundtrack needs to take a time-out, but there's an awful lot going on here. Particularly, it gives you a level of control over how you fight and the mark you can leave upon the land that's absent from your average hacky-slashy RPG thinger. Defeating a heavily-armoured enemy by dropping a chimney on 'em? That'll do.
An ever so pretty and oddly moving short game that balances woodland survival with gentle storytelling. It's basically a day in the life of The Fantastic Mr Fox, only without any convenient nearby farms to raid. As Mr Fox, you must creep about the forest in search of prey to bring back to your vulpine family, but, being anthropomorphic sorts, they also need wood to fuel the fire in their delightful underground cottage.
There's not much to it - creep and pounce and grab as much as you can during the short day, then hope you've got enough of everything to survive the wintery night - but it looks so lovely, with particularly delightful animations, and it conjures a real sense of frosty outdoor atmosphere too. Feels almost like a snippet of something larger - and I hope we one day get to see that something larger.
2.5D hacky-shooty-ARPGy/action affair, starring a robo-lady who's lost her memory and many of her core functions after being involved in an air crash and - yeah, there are a few superficial shades of Nier: Automata here. It's much more straight-down-the-line though, which is to say no wild switch-ups of style or, so far as I've seen, heartstring-tugging storytelling. Instead, it's side-scrolling cave blasting, with a mild crafting system, irradiated scorpion baddies and the occasional hulking UH-OH boss. The combat is blissfully super-fast without being a dick about it, mixing melee slicing with ranged crowd control, and a slew of bolt-on skills to choose from as you rank up.
There's some messy writing, particularly in the all-important skill tree descriptions, and the lead actor clearly wants to be anywhere but here, but that aside it's a pretty good slice of mecha-super-god action whose side-on perspective takes some of the twitchy sting out of proceedings.
I had to fight my every instinct to bail right out of this, due to its grating "HEY, REMEMBER OTHER VIDEOGAMES? FROM THE PAST? HAHA TETRIS AND DONKEY KONG BRILLIANT AND LISTEN HERE'S SOME MANIC BLEEPY MUSIC CONSTANTLY FOREVER HAHA" theme and tone. I'm glad I stuck with it despite the banality, as it's impressively inventive underneath the empty genuflection to gaming's past. The game itself is a side-scrolling but single-screen shooter, but in which you can only shoot upwards (slightly maddeningly so, as your character is a wee lad with a raygun, rather than a Space Invaders turret). As you progress, you're flung into various olden games you need to clear of infection, which means the likes of trying to zap enemies while giant Tetris blocks rain down upon you - and, once in a while, it'll switch to Gameboy-style green screen mode.
The mechanics are simple and the tone exasperating, but the whatever next? element is strong enough to prop that up.
Entirely charming action-RPG with just a touch of the Zeldas to it and just enough non-linearity. Though superficially about cats, the theme doesn't go much further than a few purr-puns and a meow sound effects when hit - really it's a slightly tongue-in-cheek fantasy romp in which you duff up dragons and upgrade your gear. From afar, I was concerned that it'd involve too much drawn-out vacuous JRPG-style ... chat, but in fact everything here is remarkably, wonderfully fast. From movement to dialogue, it all storms by breathlessly.
Cat Quest, then, understands where not to outstay its welcome, and instead gets on with rapid monster-bashing and cute-but-not-too-cute cartoon presentation. I thought I'd hate this, but now I just want to keep playing. Also: this is probably my cat-obsessed daughter's dream game, seeing as she already creates her own stories of the magic cat-land of Inglaspell, where the good magic cats fight the bad magic cats and lions are goodies too but there's an island of dogs and and and
Moody, offbeat action-puzzle game in which you get to hit a few monsters with a stick, but far more importantly get to possess monsters and make them do your bidding. Said bidding includes: lifting huge boulders out of your way, ramming raised drawbridges until they fall down, blocking turrets so you can move past 'em safely and, of course, making the beasts fight each other so you don't have to get your hands dirty.
It all hangs together well, existing in that comfortable middle-ground between intuitive problem-solving and furrow-browed trial and error. I like the scratchy, staticky, half-dream, half 70s scifi novel aesthetic too, although the tone and writing is perhaps more sombre than a game about making monsters knock stuff about deserves to be.
This week's Minimalist Puzzle Game Of The Week isn't anything like as good-lookin' as those featured in past Unknown Pleasures, but it's got the killer combo of tight, natural challenges and sympathetic features such as instant restarts. Essentially, it's a block-pushing game, although the use of rings rather than boxes does a surprisingly good job of making it feel like something else. You have to push the blue rings into the red squares, but oddly-shaped levels mean you can only take certain paths. And, if you push a ring against a corner, it ain't coming out again, so tread carefully.
It's very simple, and even gentle, and the UI clearly fell straight out of a game editing package, but the levels successfully straddle the fine line between 'if I just try this' and 'wow, this is a tight spot'.
(Presumably) inadvertently sharing a name with a still-sold globular alternative to the Rubik's cube (and, er, a flat Earth insano-documentary), so perhaps don't expect this to have the same title for long. It's a perfect name for a game which is Pong but with 500 simultaneous balls in play, however. What sounds absurd at first becomes oddly practical in concept, as first you attempt to simply hurl as many balls as possible back at your opponent, then as they drop through the goal and number diminishes, it becomes a steely-eyed war of attrition, in which every last ball counts.
With Arkanoid-style power-ups in play as well as a system whereby a ball that's been returned back and forth a few times scores far more points than a straight-into-the-net one, superficial craziness becomes intense competition. Nothing beats the first moment of a match though, when the screen is showered in ping-ponging blue and red balls, and your brain scrabbles to draw some sense from the chaotic scene.
Which brings us to this week's Pick Of The Week. This time, I'm going for *thinks*. Hum! I liked All Walls Must Fall a lot, though I'd prefer to wait to go back once it's further into development. So, instead I shall go for Cat Quest. Partly because it charms my kid so, and partly because it's slickness, cheerfulness and straightforwardness is something of a balm after a couple of days with the difficulty/complexity chest-thumping of Grimoire.