Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures, our weekly selection of the 10 best under-reported new games on Steam - all of which have been released within the past seven days. If you find yourself paralysed by choice about what to buy or play, please allow me to be your unparalyser.
This week: Lovecraft on wheels, Life Is Strange, Inside and Superhot homages and the bizarre world of achievement farming.
Perhaps not the strongest week this week, as awareness that E3 is currently raging seems to have elicited appropriate caution from many developers - there have been far fewer new games than usual. This is most sensible indeed. Never release a game in E3 week, unless you want to guarantee it will receive no coverage whatsoever. Apart from this column on this website, of course. Do as I say, not as I do.
Nevertheless, I've filtered through to find ten sparkly new delights for you. Also new-new-new: trailers instead of screenshots, so you can get a better sense of what's what, plus US and UK prices for each game too.
($0.99/£0.79, Early Access)
Devil Daggers vs GTA vs Cthulhu. A top-down drive'n'shoot 'em up in which you mow down cod-Lovecraftian beasties of mounting size and monstrousness. Your survival is measured in handfuls of minutes, with ammo starkly limited in addition to your fragile health. The sudden reveals of titanic tentacle-beasts are wonderful, especially first time round, but I think it's the sound design that really makes this - the thunderous and chilling mounting noise as your situation ever worsens.
A fine example of a simple idea made triumphant thanks to a delicate balance of style and tension. Perhaps a little one-note, but it's an early access game so hopefully we'll see more flesh on its bones over time. In any case, it's yer actual bargain at 79p/99c.
Something, perhaps, to help pass the time while we wait for the newly-announced Life Is Strange prequel series. Mostly 2D chat-o-adventure Gray Skies is transparently inspired by the slice of teenage life vs mystery serial approach (or My So Called Life vs early Twin Peaks, if you prefer) taken by LIS. Slavishly so, even, from the soppy tones of its protagonist to the wistful reminiscences about childhood while rifling through cupboards. It's rough around the edges - the glassy-eyed characters and the irritating echo effect to denote thought rather than spoken dialogue are particular misfires - and it fails to create compelling storyline hooks before defaulting to ambient domestic exploration. (This is something LIS makes work, by grabbing us straightaway with an apparent murder-mystery and a touch of the supernatural, and only moving onto noodling around once we are invested in the story and characters).
Even so, the observational, wistful dialogue has something poetic to it, and there's real charm to family interactions that feel based on something real. The hand-drawn background art is evocative too. Gray Skies needs focus, but I think it might understand the heart of LIS, not just the skin.
A big ol' pile of horror tropes, with a deeply messy English translation to boot, first-person haunted house exploration/shooting game Phobia shouldn't get away with it, but it kinda does. As well as recycling every stereotype in the book - ghostly shapes, creepy doll faces, self-closing doors, endlessly looping gramophone records, torture-basement, and on and on - it's done its homework on atmosphere. Light/dark and menacing sound design give it a genuinely creepy atmosphere, which is sustained even despite its crazily scatty pacing.
It'll bounce from long, tense treks to SUDDEN WEREWOLF ATTACK or CAGES FULL OF TWITCHING CORPSES in a heartbeat. Even so, I felt real dread as I moved to each new room, and, in between the tropes, it does pull off some visual imagination of its own. Like I say: Phobia probably shouldn't work, but it made me appropriately unsettled despite being so wildly uneven.
I just fell down a rabbit hole I never knew existed, and found myself in the world of Steam achievement farming games. Whether the Zup physics-puzzle games exist merely as a vessel for earning thousands of achievements for doing very little or the thousands of achievements for doing very little are a wrapper designed to entice people into buying and playing the Zup physics-puzzle games is a mystery we may never solve. When I first fired up Zup! 5, I was convinced it was either some sort of scam or entirely broken, as it showered me in dozens of achievements simply for loading it up, clicking on the menu screen or, at first, clicking in the middle of a level to make something explode, a ball automatically land somewhere else and the next level unlock. The top right-hand side of the screen is a waterfall of achievement notifications - delightful if you are invested in such things, I'm sure, but for those of you who (like me) are mystified by the purpose of Steam achievements, it's weird noise.
However! It turns out that the game beneath all this is a very pleasant set of physics challenges, about activating exploding blocks in the right order and with the right timing to carry the ball to the level exit. Portal-esque, er, portals come into play too, and though complexity mounts it remains relaxing rather than fiddly. All told it's a short but sweet little figure-it-out-yourselfer that comes across as more throwaway and cynical than it is because of that cheevo spam.
Very competent if unexceptional (so far) JRPG meets jumping-free platformer, with a SNES/GBA aesthetic. It also has just a little Heroes of Might and Magic-style tactical unit placement during its turn-based battles, with a big emphasis on melee front/ranged middle/mages rear. It's quite a polished affair, and mercifully quite minimal on the dialogue compared to so many of its genre-mates, although I think it's needlessly heavy on timing-based avoidance of spike traps and spinning sawblades from very early on. It's not my personal cup of tea, but it's got a good range of classes and skills to tinker with, and the summoning-based party system is neat, so I reckon this'll scratch a few 16-bit itches for those that still have them.
Any minimalist puzzler has a hard act to follow after last week's divine Lines, but Adjaceny certainly makes a decent fist of it. Also numberless, wordless and based around filling shapes with colour, but rather than being in competition with computer-controlled opponents, here you're essentially in competition with yourself. Spreading one colour to adjacent shapes inherently involves removing other colours from them - but the twist is that each and every colour must be spread to their allocated cells. A great deal of thought has gone into creating smart but not exasperating challenges involving replacing a colour without actually eradicating the entirety of the colour from the screen, while there's a surprising sense of journey in carrying one single splodge of, say, yellow, all the way to the most distant end of the scene.
Possibly a little too aesthetically functional for its own good - a sense of beauty was what helped Lines to be such a joy - but it's a strong puzzle concept, well-realised.
It's a bit of a week for unashamed homages, with Delay wearing its heart on its sleeve for slo-mo shooter SUPERHOT. This essentially reconfigures the time-only-moves-when-you-move concept as a side-on 2D platformer/shooter. If it sounds brazen, it is, but there's a a surprising degree of difference nonetheless. For a start, you can see all your foes at once, so there's more in the way of making a plan of action that you have to execute perfectly, rather than rely on reflex in any way. And while SUPERHOT is broadly a charge forwards, this entails navigating a vertical space that much more, with double-jump platforming being crucial to Delay's bullet-dodging survival in the way strafing is in its great inspiration.
It's a good time, although my chief complaint is that it presumes its audience is as starry-eyed for SUPERHOT as it is, and as such ramps the challenge SUPERHIGH almost immediately.
A physics puzzler that's half state-of-zen and half tension-headache precision. Click on one of its blocks to specify which direction one of a very limited number of balls will then strike it from, and if you've done it right a chain reaction of physics will see all the other blocks in the level shatter. Raise and lower walls, use blocks whose shattered pieces can demolish neearby blocks, or bounce in unexpected ways off strange shapes with stranger physics properties. Glorious voxel explosions of colour are the most potent rewards, but it's also got a nice line in dawning moments of realisation when its obtuse internal logic suddenly becomes crystal clear. Smart, pretty, different and simultaneously relaxing and stressful. Perhaps that essence was the reason the developer named themselves 'Hamster On Coke.'
Limbo/Inside-style black and whiteish puzzle platformer, made by someone who's almost certainly a big Neil Gaiman fan. The hook is that it's all set on a small world, with the curve of the landscape visible at all times, the planet spinning as you run across it, creating a simultaneous sense of coziness and surreality. It's a striking effect, and not purely superficial - you can use the planetary curve to increase the distances of your jumps, if you get enough of a run up that what starts as jumping uphill becomes gracefully sailing downhill. It's a physics puzzler that makes the physics part of thematic conceit, essentially.
The blandly maudlin dialogue, though scant, does World of One few favours, and it goes a bit too big on spike traps far too soon, but it's nice to look at and the circular landscape lends it a feel all of its own. Certainly stands out from the platformer crowd.
($7.99/£5.59, Early Access)
Russian Hot air balloon battler/roguelite/trading game with a janky English translation. That's a shame since Pilam Sky itself is rather charming, a comic steampunk affair involving men with oversized moustaches jousting in the skies. Your balloon lobs slow to reload cannonballs from each side, naval combat sim-style, while a selection of pikes and anchors also enable melee damage - complete with little gusts of escaping helium if you pop a hole in an enemy's canvas. Combat is manic and genteel all at the same time, what with a balloon not being the most manoeuvrable of aircraft. Between fights, you spend gold on upgrades - you know the drill, but it's a solid enough spur to push onward.
Surprisingly though, given the awful English, it's the tone that stands out - there's a very agreeable jolliness to this. It's very much early access, so its upgrade and resource trading systems are rather under-nourished, but if it stays in active development it should be quite a treat in a few months.
Pick of the week is... Howard Phillips Lovecar.
No contest, really: it pulls off its entirely stupid concept marvellously. Car + shotgun + giant ancient horrors is a winning formula.