Unknown Pleasures: Steam's latest hidden delights
10 of the best overlooked new releases
Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures, our weekly wade through Steam's ever-deepening sewers to find ten sparkling new releases that perhaps have not enjoyed the attention they deserve.
This week: absurdist sports medicine, roguelike vs poker vs match-3, bumblebee simulation and chimp-powered internet.
Super Sports Surgery
Body-horror comedy surgeon game - y'know the sort, those Operation-derived vignettes of grotesquery in which you remove various 'orrible things from wounded souls while trying to avoid doing so much damage that they expire on the table. It's familiar 'use tweezers to extract absurdist viscera' stuff, which means it lives or dies on if it's funny or not.
And yeah, it is - from stabbing maggots inside a dude's moustache to replacing a fashion designer's arm bones with TV sets and cut-out paper men because he thinks it's more interesting, the joy here is finding out just what random, entertainingly unpleasant nonsense it'll chuck at you next. Ren'n'Stimpy-esque art lifts a simple thing into a wonderfully vile thing too.
We Slay Monsters
A lovely fusion of roguelike and card game. Puts me a little in mind of the excellent Dream Quest, although the cardboard infusion is in this case poker rather than Magic the Gathering. Damage dealt - and, later, type of attack - is defined by cards in your hand as well as by your hero's level and gear. So, a couple of doubles will amp up your strike massively, while a royal flush probably means a one-hit kill. Actual poker knowledge not required - you're going to pick up the handful of card combos very quickly, and instead focus your concentration on the most strategic way to take down enemies of escalating difficulty.
It gets more tactical as the game wears on - for instance, you end up unlocking buffs when specific cards are used, such as a heal on 8 or gold on 3 - and between missions you can upgrade a central hub to further amp up what your deck does. Really well put-together, and an effortless entanglement of genres in an age where roguelikebut is starting to get a bit over-used. I like this a lot.
A flight of the bumblebee simulator. There is nothing more to b than that, just to warn you, but I know I didn't need it to be anything more than soaring over a vast and dense meadow, rich with waving grass and fluttering dandelions. Its no-pennies price excuses its various limitations - you can reach the edges of the meadow too soon, and you can fly through it and invert yourself disconcertingly, for instance - but I'd have gladly lobbed a few quid at it anyway.
It's also a mother of a technical workout for even the willy-wavingest of PCs, and I doubt any system could cope with maxed-out grass density and dandelion count. Recommended system requirements are an i7 7700k and a GTX 1070, which is... ambitious. Yet it does it all with a meagre 512MB RAM requirement.
I probably need to start doing 'Minimalist Puzzle Game Of The Week' in addition to Pick Of The Week. There always seems to be something new offering low-key ingenuity with simple controls and calming plink-plonk piano music. Though often it's hard to escape that they were designed for a touch screen's finger-dragging first and foremost, the tranquil pace tends to suit mouse just fine too, and Line Way is no exception. Though it reminds me a little of something you might find in a puzzles book printed on thin paper sent to you by a distant relative each and every Christmas, it's got charm as well as smarts. Simply, find the correct route across various grids of square blocks, without passing over any one square twice. A few curveballs turn up later, including blocks you can't pass at all, but in the main it's all about writing gently growing challenge from that same, unchanging concept. Inventive in both its use of symmetry and spiral, it's cute and absorbing and, as such, is our Minimalist Puzzle Game Of The Week.
I probably need to start doing 'Roguelike Genre Mash-Up Of The Week' in addition to Minimalist Puzzle Game Of The Week and Pick Of The Week. There always seems to be something fusing permadeath dungeoneering with some other breed of videogame. Heroic Dungeon opts for match-3 puzzle games as its remixed form of fantasy combat, but, as the name might imply, it does come across as rather plain despite the system essentially working. For that reason, it is not my RGMOTW - that prize instead goes to the peppier (but only slightly more inventively-named) We Slay Monsters - but that doesn't mean it doesn't pull off its grand cocktail rather well.
Exploration's a basic grid affair, with each square covered up a block that reveals a MONSTER, AN UPGRADE, A LEVEL EXIT KEY or ABSOLUTELY DIDDLY-SQUAT when you move to it. If it's the former, you're taken to a Bejwelled-esque screen in which you have to drag out the longest possibly chain of coloured-matched monsters in order to increase your attack power. It's not terribly challenging, at least not in its early stages, but there's an essential rhythm to its combat - ambient puzzling meets raw numbers - that makes it perfectly pleasant despite a shortage of true personality.
One of the real joys of Unknown Pleasures is gunning up something which looks like it'll be about as rewarding as trying to sell solar panels to Greenlanders in December, only to wind up being delightful. The hilariously prosaically-named FlyingRock falls into this category, coming across like all the world like something designed to fill up space on a 2001-era magazine cover disc. Splodgy top-down models with stop-start animation and Geocities web button backgrounds that never change... And yet! Basically, you're a dude with a bat, using it to knock the titular flying rock at various breakables inside the arena by frantically whirling it around you, and ideally without getting clobbered in the face by said rock. In some modes, you're chained to a pole like a rabid dog, so your movement is agonisingly restricted; in other modes you're facing off against fellow pole-wielding nutters.
Breakout is write large across FlyingRock's DNA, but it takes the 'keep a ball moving until everything is smashed' concept somewhere new, madcap and faintly murderous. It's brief and it's very rough, but there's absolutely something there. If it's not too rude to say so, a totally new art pass could ramp up the twisted comedy, so that its current functional appearance could sell the ridiculous rock-twatting concept that much better. For now, it's a bargain at $0.
Zafehouse Diaries 2
The oddly low-profile return of an old name that didn't quite hit the spot first time around, and it's feeling altogether more sold so far, based on my brief time with it. Zafehouse is a zombie survival sim, in which you manage the resources and relationships of a group of random survivors as they try to make it across an infected town in search of rescue or escape. If the zombs don't kill 'em, they might well kill each other - either from hapless inability to watch each other's backs, or from outright conflict. In other words, if you want yer Walking Dead game, this is pretty damn close.
The focus on diarised descriptions of events after you've committed to what actions you're going to take lends it an innate tension that I'm not convinced is there if you're trying to shoot zombos in the brain in real-time. Stressful, brutal and slickly presented - you will learn to dread the splatter of blood over a diary page which denotes Something Has Happened - Zafehouse is a mighty fine way of reminding yourself that zombie apocalypses are to be feared, not yawned at.
thecatamites, creator of Space Funeral and Murder Dog, returns with a new (and, unusual for him, paid) game that returns to the retro JRPG homage of the former. It's been available on Itch.io but as of this week joins the teeming masses on Steam. Though it does feature beast-stabbing as you stalk across a large openish world, which switches pleasantly between between close-ups and a zoomed-out, cuboid map, really it's a cut-up, surrealistic narrative, more about alternately comic and black mood than actual event.
My frail and ageing mind is incapable of processing it as much more than sequence of flashing colours and sprightly sounds and a general sense of comfort in pressure-free exploration; your young and experiment-friendly mind may weave greater meaning from it. I enjoyed all the visual invention here nevertheless; thecatamities' hallmark scratchy lo-fi style has given way to something more consciously elegant.
A local multiplayer multiple choice quiz game, with a neon 80s style and questions including "who is the developer of Minecraft?" and "which of these TV shows recently got renewed?" in addition to historical and geographical posers such as the date of the first moon landing and the capital of North Korea. I met up with a friend, Tom "Tom Bramwell" Bramwell, formerly of Eurogamer fame, and made him first play this with me, then tell me what he thought, and now publish that here without paying him a damn penny:
"Well, it's just questions. But the questions were pretty good, I guess. It looked like that Far Cry 80s spin-off (Blood Dragon - Ed) but without any reason to be so. It looks like a low-rent pub quiz simulator, but I thought the questions were pretty good. But that was mostly because they were answers I knew. That makes me look good, but does it actually mean that they were a good set of questions? It could have done with more of a round structure and a goofy host, as just taking turns to answer was a bit monotonous. But as a way to avoid engaging with my work for ten minutes, I endorse it entirely."
The reason the internet was so slow in the 90s? Chimps, routing data to us bit-by-bit. Advances in robo-chimp technology make today's broadband dramatically faster, of course, but we should never forget where we came from. Chimpology takes us back to those early days of waiting nine minutes to see a low-resolution photograph of Daphne from Frasier, asking that we roleplay as one of those original routing chimps. Press Z or M to quickly allocate a 0 or 1 bit to the next part of the image the user is trying to download, be rewarded with bananas for getting it right, lose your job for getting it wrong. There is something weirdly counter-logical about the Z/0, M/1 key bindings, which makes this distinctly more challenging in practice than it sounds on paper.
It shouldn't work - this is a game about endlessly pressing the same two keys - but it does. Partly because of leaderboards, but mostly because your own investment in discovering what the image is going to be: a Gameboy Advance cartridge! A Windows 95 setup screen! One of those biros with six different coloured nibs! The best of times, the ninetiest of times.
This week's pick of the week is....
Huh, no clear winner this time, actually. I guess I'll go with We Slay Monsters, seeing as it's a well done, poppy roguelike remix that called me back several times, but I must admit that Chimpology tickled me pink too.