Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures. Each week, we wade through the chin-deep river of new Steam releases to find five hidden gems that otherwise would have passed most of us by.
This week: Hadoukens & cherry blossoms, a The Flash game without The Flash, sinister bureaucracy and extremely charming elephants.
($6.99/£4.99, early access)
Side-scrolling, samurai-y hacker-slasher, with some lovely Banner Saga-esque, dynastic China-themed 2D art. The English translation is appalling, but it scarcely matters: the pleasure of this is in stabbing and slicing at hordes of bad dudes while cherry blossoms flutter confetti-petals in the background.
Better still, the main special move is the Hadouken combo, surely built into muscle memory for all of us, which activates an excellent multi-dude-slicing mega-attack. Early access but in good shape: outside of the writing, this looks good, moves good, feels good.
I need to say upfront that I don't know where this game is ultimately going. I can't stick with any Unknown Pleasures for long, otherwise this piece'd take me all week, but that's particularly problematic in the case of Insert Paper. It frames a central mystery within a structure of absolute banality; as the title suggests, the rote document-checking of Papers, Please is a clear inspiration, but the critical shift (more so than the good-lookin' 3D graphics) is the removal of almost all context. After an intro in which you are arrested for unknown reasons, you find yourself alone and with computerised orders to file pieces of paper into a machine.
Those pieces of paper are, it transpires, identity documents for various strangers. The machine tells you that it needs a document of a particular colour and with a particular first or last name on it: that is all. Insert the wrong document and you 'fail' that room. Insert the right document and you are... successful? I cannot say. In either case, you go onto the next room. Which is exactly the same as the previous one - as too are the dozens of other rooms that follow. Or are they? (No, but subtly so, and that furthers the queasy sense of uncertainty).
There are, too, ways of modifying a document in order to make it correct - but the chilling thing about this, about all of this, is that you don't know what you are doing to the people whose documents you file. Does changing a name or a paper colour damn someone else to this purgatory you are trapped in? Or does it save the right person from the axe?
I do not know if all becomes clear; I do not know if the entire game is a sick joke, laughing a how long a player will spend performing the same activity. I do know that it feels deeply, deeply chilling - the sense of wrongness pervades, the perception that you are being silently watched at all times is consistently unsettling, and, even without knowing how it resolves, I recommend it for that very carefully-pitched atmosphere alone.
This week, our latest weekly Minimalist Puzzle Game Of The Week in this, the week of October 13th, 41st week of the 52 weeks of the 52-week year 2017, is PEG, or at least that's the case this week. This is a lovely, chunky, brightly-coloured take on OG Solitaire (i.e. not the Windows card game), with the requisite slow, plinky piano soundtrack. Your goal on each level is to end up with only one red peg and one blue peg remaining.
Pegs are removed by making a peg jump over another peg of the same colour, so the trick is hop 'em around the board in such as fashion as to not leave any pegs isolated and thus unreachable. Harder than it sounds, but also far more tranquil than it sounds - like any great puzzle game, it has those moments where suddenly the pattern reveals itself, and your pride at your own success is immeasurable. Feels good, man. Lovely to see so much colour too, given that MPGOTWs tend to involve very subdued palettes.
Freedom Force via Viewtiful Joe, which is to say a tongue-so-far-in-cheek-it's-torn-a-hole-right-through superhero game with cel-shaded art and combo-led punchy graphics, plus Batman '66 sound effects. The gag-a-minute dialogue is exceedingly grating, though at least half the blame for that lies with the awful voice acting. It wants to be Evil Genius in style but there's far too much dopey mugging to camera. However! The combat's a joy, bundling in wall-running, high-speed air-dashes and all sorts to create a system whereby your characters are pinging all over the screen constantly. With a different skin, this would make a really nice adaptation of The Flash (though it lacks the requisite speeding-through-city-blocks element).
The fights feel great, it drops in a vareity of baddies which are immune to standard attacks and so require specific special ones, which keep you on your toes, and there are more moves and characters to unlock as your progress. It's just a shame the audio presentation is so trite: there's a very solid wee brawler underneath it.
Almost absurdly wholesome Zeldalike - it's no surprise that this is due for a Switch release too. But wholesome isn't inherently unappealing to serious bizness grownups like us - it's whether it can hold the line between cute and cloying or not. And yeah, Yono does. This puzzle-adventure starring a perpetually cheerful elephant, who helps people out with problems, makes lifts move with his trunk and shoves rocks out of the way. It's charming rather than sickly, filled with lovely touches such as being able to gently place any small animal you pass onto your back, where they'll ride around indefinitely, and being able to paint your nelly different colours.
Genuinely a very pleasant place to be, apart from the occasional accidentally-nightmarish NPC face. It'll really come into its own if played in a family context, but even this grumpy old git stuck with it solo for a fair while.
Pick of the week this week is... well, I don't have a standout favourite, but I think Anonymous ME just about edges it despite snarled-up translation. Hadoukens and cherry blossoms are a most winning combination.