Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures, our weekly compendium of the 8-10 best new games released on Steam over the past week that haven't already been covered to death here and elsewhere.
This week: match-3 XCOM, Nuclear Throne homage, Homeworld-styled shmup, barista simulation and books not judged by programmer art covers.
Match-3 vs XCOM, with super-pretty comicky art to boot. This cyberpunkish tale of a blighted future-world battling against mega-bugs and the insidous forces behind them looks its absolute best in the 2D cutscenes, which have a touch of the Banner Saga's razer-sharp animation look to them, and particularly in the (sadly only minimally interactive) cityscape which you pick missions from. Top ambient-apocalyptic soundtrack also. The missions themselves have your damaged dealt dictated by how many matching tiles your character can sprint across first. It's a natural enough system, with scope for a few almighty upsets, though it did feel a little samey fast. Nonethless, I really dig Ticket To Earth's style and tone. It's one of relatively few times that I've sat up in my chair and thought 'ooh!' while panning for gold in Unknown Pleasures.
Ah, that tricky space between "inspired by" and rip-off. Legend Of Monsters, as is perhaps inevitable for a game with such a mangled SEOish title, borrows liberally from another game - specifically, Vlambeer's screen-shakin', randomly-generated top-down shooter Nuclear Throne. From the big, chunky pixels to the lozenge-spraying guns to the sudden-death difficulty, it's pretty shameless.
Thing is - it's also pretty decent, if a fairly unforgiving pew-pew game is what you're in the market for. Nuclear Throne's post-apocalyptic nightmare creatures are replaced by more familiar fare such as zombies, mummies and slime-blobs, all set within a very 80s 'rescue your sister from inside the videogame' conceit. It also deviates from NT a little by featuring cash and weapon shops, so there's maybe a little more control over what you pew-pew with than in its great inspiration.
Crucially - it costs pennies. I'm having a very mild moral dilemma about whether I should be including it, but, inna final analysis, it is just about its own game.
($14.99, £10.99, Early Access)
A top-down spaceshippy shooter vs roguelite with gorgeous Homeworld/Foss-esque art, PION's on track to be quite special if it can just tuck its willy back inside its underpants and stop posturing about how difficult it wants to be. It's in Early Access, so hopefully current claims such as "over time the game will be expanded with harder and more exotic levels filled with progressively stronger and smarter enemies" will be tempered by some kind of sanity.
Shooting industrial-themed hoverbots inside giant space-places with a selection of weapons, craft and power-ups is a good time, especially when it looks this stylish, and though I'm theoretically on board with the Devil Daggers-style time attack/wave survival structure, it lacks the immediate restart and zero time wastage elements required to get away with that. I like the look a lot and I like the pew-pew splodey feel, and I hope I can return to Pion in a few months to find a more sensible difficulty curve or different modes of play. If you're a NO PAIN NO GAIN EVERYONE ELSE IS BABYMAN type, then I guess you're going to have the best time with this, however.
A game you will only ever play once, unless you're playing it in front a young child, in which case they will demand you play it repeatedly, forever (until tea time). It's currently discounted to 47p (FYI I always list the full price in Unknown Pleasures entries, as many people read the feature after launch sales have ended), and for 15-30 minutes of slamming a magical top hat onto a comedy millionaire's head I'm not going to argue with that price. Stophat was originally created for a gamejam, and frankly that's obvious - but that doesn't mean it's a bad thing.
There is much to be said for the single idea game, deployed with verve and silliness. In this case, you're battling against falling elevator-based physics to try and lodge the hat onto the monocle-wearing gent's head sufficient times within a time limit. The most banal of activities, made urgent by a sense of screaming, urgent doom. Entirely silly, but 50p for a giggle is all good by me.
Neatly-done mini-management sim, mixed in with just a touch of idle/clicker game. Does what it says on the tin - buy furniture and appliances in order to create a cafe that pulls in maximum passing trade - but uses an 'awful hipsters and their bullshit recipes and cod-vintage junk' conceit that can't quite decide whether to be cute or sneery. It does find the line between tranquil and hectic, however - generally it's free of in-the-moment financial pressure (i.e. if you overspend you can just wait it out) but it shoves in mechanics such as frantically clicking to clear litter from the floor in order to pass health inspections, which keeps you busy.
There's also researching new food and drink, a process that's part leftfield guess work and part deduction, and the hiring of poetry slams, bands and anti-government protests to boost revenue. It's a good time, and a pretty slick little capitalism sim, but between the changeable nice/nasty tone and some overbaked between-mission story bits it can get in its own way.
Freebie hyper-caffeinated Space Invaders riff, with references to basically everything from that same early era of games. A rainbow colour palette and a screenful of explosions, time-limited helper drones and swarms of foes based on those from Asteroids, Centipede, Defender, etc. makes it appealingly frantic, and though (as the name suggests) retro gaming is its launchpad, it does wind up having an identity of its own. I particularly dig the mechanic whereby you can shoot a power-up while it's still in the air above you to make it start shooting nearby enemies, or try not to hit it before it hits the ground in order to gain a stronger power-up such as a clone or a shield. Meanwhile, you're also trying not to shoot little Darwinia dudes before they can fall safely to Earth, which is no small matter in the midst of all that action.
An excellent deal for no pennies, but it would be an excellent deal at a couple of quid too.
($14.99/£10.99, Early Access)
Billed as a spiritual successor to The Guild series - which I should confess I have not played - Saelig combos roleplaying and management, bundling elements of The Sims in alongside trading and the running of a medieval industry. It's a very hands-on affair, so steer clear if the idea of manually sending a cart to the market to buy flour every time you want to bake bread sounds too onerous. But it's the combination of gathering and making with having your character befriend and romance fellow villagers that holds the most promise - life simulation, not just business simulation. Even the business side of things entails competing with other villagers for profit and property. This isn't approaching things lightly.
Its Early Access nature is obvious, from the plain and temperamental interface to limited consequences if you start abusing people, but there's a ton of depth here already. One to keep an eye on, I think.
This week's "this one is OBVIOUSLY going to be total trash" subversion is Space Hit, a shmup of sorts in which you cannot directly control you craft's movements. Between the rather 'my first videogame' art and the fact that I died the second I touched a button the first five times I tried it, I was certain I'd be moving right along. Then, suddenly, a burst of realisation: I have to hop between planets, using their gravitational pull to stay briefly safe from the gigantic sawblades that pursued me from every direction. Aim at a planet, tap space, jump. That's the only way you can move, but you will automatically orbit around a planet once you reach it, which is essential to getting into position for the next jump. Hit enemies en route, lose lives, aim wrong and sail off into the void, and ultimately into a saw blade - which is Game Over. So the essential challenge is to be pew-pewing enemies at the same time as lining up and timing planetary hops. In practice, this lends Space Hit almost a rhythm action feel, this flow and beat of simultaneous action, but the deal's made sweeter by boss fights at the end of each level, in which avoidance alone is just not enough.
Once Space Hit clicks, it makes beautiful sense and score (i.e. number of planets hopped) milestones presented on the main screen that once looked impossible suddenly become realistic goals. It feels really, really good, and, as the levels wear on, amplifies into new kinds of danger too. This is exactly the kind of game that this column exists for. Very fitting, propulsive soundtrack too.
Blighted by programmer art, but a super-solid puzzle-platformer underneath the bland smiley cube skin. The way this ramps up from simple jumping between platforms to performing trick ceiling-slides, dodging killer cows and using anti-gravity boosts to sail over great distances is almost breathtaking. It starts out so dull and familiar, then finds this groove - the dastardly inventiveness of its levels is quite something. There's also a timer element in here, in that you if you take too long, you have to repeat the level even once you make it to this exit, which ensures an essential tension and a need to hurry throughout. Instant restarts/zero time-wasting means it's gloriously compulsive - just one more level, just one more try. Puts me in mind of Trackmania, a little.
Definitely more than the sum of its perhaps over-familiar parts, this one - RectRacer is tight. It's even got multiplayer modes, which I've not been able to try out, but strongly suspect are a good bet for showing off in front of your mates. And there's a level editor tool. Can enough of you lot buy this that they can hire someone to give it a whole new look and therefore make it more appealing to more people, please?
Pick of the week this time is... oooh, tough one. It's a three-way tie between Ticket To Earth, Space Hit and RectRacer, I'd say. Y'know what, I'm gonna go for Space Hit. After its wobbly start and poor presentation, it turned out to be so fresh and novel - a videogame very much being a videogame, with unashamedly weird internal logic that translates quite beautiful to fast, precise mechanics.