Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures, our weekly round-up of hidden gems released with little-to-no fanfare on Steam over the past seven days.
This week: cowboy vs space-whale, voxel swordplay, deft Gameboy throwback and 6 degrees of freedom space-racing.
Quick note - this'll be the last Unknown Pleasures of 2017, due to that whole Christmas and New Year lark. It will return in 2018.
$9.99/£7.19, early access
Hacky-slashy, voxelly, procgen, isometric roguelike, which puts me variously in mind of Tokyo 42, Voxatron and Necropolis, despite being very different to all the above. It's a game that's really all about the dash button, used both to pass obstacles and to say alive during sword-based combat, but the wrinkle is that dashing and slashing build up 'heat.' Too much heat and you overheat, which leaves you semi-paralysed and vulnerable, be it during a fight or while trying to cross some vast gulf.
The fighting system is fairly elaborate though, a dance of timing, swiping, blocking and dodging, as well as mid-air tussles. The controls feel a little bit off - or maybe it's that the wash of colour and abstraction makes it a little tougher to get the measure of than is entirely helpful - but I'm hopeful that it'll get a good polish during early access.
It's characterful and strange as it is, with incidental dialogue that teases and begs, and as you see it's got a distinctive, chunky-yet-eerie look. A good time!
In almost any other situation, I'd stop playing this and start losing my mind after three minutes of death-by-jumping. However, I am a sucker for a Gameboy aesthetic, because, with depressing inevitability, that was the only console I owned as a callow youth. But I returned to the Gameboy earlier this year, and was genuinely wowed by how much developers managed to do with so little. Madcap Castle's no exception, wringing an unbelievable amount of variety and precision out of the misadventures of a little wizard dude who primarily has to jump to avoid various lethal obstacles.
Charmingly, he also picks up different spells depending on the level, each of which essentially solves a navigational puzzle. Each level is a single screen that only takes a few seconds to complete if you do it right. But you won't do it right. You'll die a dozen times first. And that's just in the early levels.
My mind tells me I should hate it, because jump'n'fail is my own personal hell. But! The steady stream of remarkable ingenuity, combined with the simplicity and characterfulness of that aesthetic and the two-button controls, makes this an incredibly charming and vibrant form of masochism. Someone port this onto a cart for me pronto, please.
Oh - this one also has a demo, by the way.
It's the last Minimalist Puzzle Game Of The Week this year! We made it! Truth be told, Forestation is desperately overpriced for what it is, and it doesn't help that it takes for too long to get going. The first couple of dozen levels are a cakewalk. The idea is you plant trees by drawing one, uninterrupted path across eligible tiles, so it's fairly familiar 'find the one route that doesn't involve passing the same title twice' fare. But the trees are good - it makes me think of some olden, half-forgotten RTS, in a Settlers vein.
Naturally, it gets more elaborate (and thus more satisfying), including folding in trick tiles, as it wears on, and there are secrets too. But, as much I hate to say it, this should be a couple of bucks or less if wants an audience.
Endless runner meets archery game meets Western meets, er, giant flying whale. Very short but with a price to suit, and more importantly bags of surprisingly changeable atmosphere and a degree of thrillpower that the phrase 'shooting floating targets at speed from horseback' roundly fails to evoke.
Dev Spotted Zebra has currently challenged themselves to create a game a week, but they really hit the bullseye with this tiny delight.
Mario Kart vs Elite, which is to say a racing game set in space. But not pretend 'actually just big metal tunnels' space - actual, open, six degrees of freedom, zero-g space, in which you're tussling with the physics of spaceflight if you want to stop yourself drifting thousands of metres off-course. This gives it a distinctly different - forgive me - atmosphere to the racing norm - the 'course' feels enormous.
Orbital Racer looks and sounds the part, and has a choice between arcade and simulation controls, so it's as hard as you want to make it, basically. It gets a little samey, and the structuring of races as ring-shaped checkpoints brings back bad Superman 64 memories, but it certainly makes a impressive fist of blending two very disparate types of movement.
Pick of the week for this last Unknown Pleasures of 2017 is... hell, I'm gonna go with Madcap Castle. Gameboy4eva! It does so much so well with so little, and does what it does so well that I don't hate it even though I fully expected to.