Just when I thought I was out, Steam Next Fest pulls me back in. To loving video games, that is! Yes, once again Valve has seen fit to flood their digi-store with literally hundreds of free demos, all available for your perusal until the 22nd. That's a whole long weekend of free stuff to play, baby. But, as any Netflix browser knows, too much choice can be paralysing. I've gone through and played as many demos as possible and picked the best here, to give you somewhere to start.
You want big robots? You want a tiny witch? You want MEAT? The games below can provide all that and more. There's strategic combat, management, and point and click adventures of a decidedly weird persuasion. From pixelart RPGs to 3D city building, they're a varied bunch. This list isn't exhaustive by any means - I was still getting emails about new demos last night! - but it'll give you a big ol' shove in the right direction.
A lot of people I know have a weird thing for giant robots. Transformers, Gundam: if it's big, metal, and punches other big metal things, they're into it. Not in a sexy way (I mean, I assume not in a sexy way. I haven't asked), they just think they're neat. And playing Wolfstride is the closest I have come to being like "OHHHH, I get it!"
It's a turn-based strategy game from Ota Imon Studios and published by Raw Fury, where the turns are giant mechs with names like Wormageddon smashing each other, and the strategy is strategising how to destroy the other one before it destroys you. You want to take out the chest bit of the enemy, though you can destroy the head and arms individually as well. You get attack bonuses for staying around the middle, and pushing your enemy to the side. Some attacks have knockback, some are ranged, and all of 'em use Action Points. You also have to reload every so often if you use your guns a bunch, and choose mid-fight repairs, and use defensive moves at the right time… It's a hoot 'n' a half, and it looks amazing too - like a black and white anime.
In this life sim, coming from Sunny Side Up some time in 2021, you are Ellie the witch, in the woods, and you are indeed little. As the top graduating student in your class, you're off for your posting to be a town's witch but get diverted when your train breaks down - and you decide to just stay put in the lovely little forest you find. Accompanied by your talking hat, you set about exploring, crafting potions, and meeting the locals. Events escalate in complexity: to destroy a large spiky weed blocking your way you need moon oil, but to get moon oil you need to brew a kind of sunlight bomb - and so on and so forth.
Your spell book fills in as you discover new ingredients, one of which you can only get by finding sunbathing lizards and rubbing their tummies (close up of this process pictured above). The process of brewing is lovely as well, and you have to prepare ingredients by roasting or crushing them in the basement of your neat little witch cottage. It's really fabulous - detailed and methodical, as well as expressive, funny and a little bit fairytale. I can't wait for the full release.
Labyrinth City: Pierre The Maze Detective
Darjeeling and publisher Pixmain have adapted a children's book series and created a moving, luxury Where's Wally (which is my frame of reference because I never read Pierre The Maze Detective). Each level is a dense maze, through which you must wend your way, and while in practise you can't really get lost or go far in the wrong direction, exploring is a charming time. There are treasure chests, golden stars and hidden notes to find in every level, not to mention interactable bits to surprise and elicit giggles. It's Hidden Folks in full colour, and definitely an imaginative toy to plonk in front of a child.
Alice0 in particular has been singing the praises of Death Trash for a while now, and it's finally getting close to maybe being launched in early access in August. It's a real grim and grimy RPG, with a lot of meat. Like, seriously, you will just see big chunks of meat lying around the wilderness. You will be attacked by lil' meat slugs that seem to have spontaneously generated from it. Having newly lost your citizenship in the safe, underground, android-monitored cities, you're kicked out into the world to fend for yourself.
The first thing I did was meet a big behemoth made of meat. It looked like a cross between an elephant and a squid. It wanted me to find it some friends. I could hardly say no, could I? Combat is weighty and meaningful enough (especially when you're a new wasteland baby) that you might think about avoiding it. At least until you get the lightning power up...
Freshly Frosted turned up at Wholesome Direct, which is how it first came to my attention. Coming later this year from The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild (who, you'd think from the name, would have more pressing things on their plate than donuts), this little puzzle game is way harder than it looks. Each oven will spit out a plain donut, and you have to build a network of conveyor belts that carry them to an exit chute. Except, some of them will need to stay plain, some will need cream and a cherry on top, and some will need icing but no sprinkles. Then add in stuff like mandatory switches separating your donuts into two or more streams and you've got the recipe for a donut factory nightmare. In a good way.
Norco is point and click, but I hesitate to say adventure. It describes itself as "a sci-fi Southern Gothic", which checks out. You return to your childhood home town after several years away, and the recent death of your mother. Exploring the industrial town, with its rundown suburbs and general air of decline, you uncover a semi-secret semi-conspiracy as you search for your newly missing brother. It's quite a lot of drama, but it all feels subdued and matter of fact.
There are wonderful interactions to come across (I reclaimed my childhood stuffed toy, and convinced a director that in Louisiana we call dickheads "bad daddies") and clues to put together. You also create new logical and emotional links by working through thoughts in a kind of visual menu screen representing your mind. The melancholy, presence of the past, and - probably most importantly for my hindbrain - image of staring eyes right near the start made me think of a kind of neo-Gatsby. But way cooler.
The Immortal Mayor
I'm a fool for a chill city builder, and if this isn't that then I dunno what is. From Star Chess Studio, The Immortal Mayor is launching into Early Access later this month, and it shows great promise in the demo - albeit, shows it quite slowly. You build an absolutely stunning town (first priority being to give everyone houses) and gradually expand it to fill their needs for food, entertainment, and just living somewhere pretty and stable. Even though it's not fully translated yet, it's intuitive enough that dull English-only speakers like myself will be able to grasp everything and make somewhere pretty nice, and since you're a local deity you have access to some limited magic, and can build shrines to other gods for passive boosts to other things. The only problem, really, is that it takes just a mite too long to do anything, so you might as well just have full fast forward speed on the whole time.
Kapital: Sparks Of Revolution
Lapovich Team deliver another cool city builder/management game, although this one is slightly less chill - but will be of particular interest to teens who've read (or at least pretend to have read) The Communist Manifesto. A non-specific European country has just weathered an invasion during a war, and needs to rebuild. As the mayor you need to facilitate this, whilst also balancing the needs and dissatisfaction of the upper, middle and working classes. For example, you initially levy taxes on the more entrepreneurial middle class, who are business owners. Raising taxes on the nobility requires you to pass another, different law, but you can only pass new laws on a fixed time frame, so d'you wanna use your next one for that, or to nationalise education? Social unrest is, we are told, inevitable…
My initial analysis of Gummy Cat's game was that it is about a bed and breakfast run by you, a bear, for other bears (as in the animal species). In fact, you're a bear running a kind of country cabin retreat akin to a hostel - but I admire the almost pun. You have to build the bedrooms, place the furniture, and gradually upgrade everything so your shower becomes an actual shower and not e.g. a wooden tub with a hose. You're encouraged to pick up rubbish because that forms a currency to give to a raccoon selling furniture out of a bin. When you speak to a human your answer comes out as bear noises. The demo gives you one of the cabins to work with, and I had a hell of a time with it and will definitely return for the full release later this year.
They Always Run
In this case they always run in 2D, and away from you. This is fair enough, since you are a mutant bounty hunter with a third arm sticking out of your back. I enjoyed the space-ish setting, with kind of a "You ain't from round these parts" hostile cowboy saloon feeling. Alawar Premium have made a game that encourages you to be speedy. You can run, jump and insta-kill parry multiple baddies in one go, all with surprisingly little effort. Your third arm comes into play as basically a special ability - you can power it up to do special attacks, or use it to break blocks. Controller required for full enjoyment, I'd say.
I'm a sucker for an interesting point and click puzzle game, and this one from MistyMountainStudio looks to be a belter. It's based on Chinese mythology, and is gorgeous to look at, at the same time as being a bit melancholic and weird. You play as Qi Yun, the last Rewinder, and can communicate with spirits and alter the past by exploring people's memories. The ramifications of this are not fully clear to me, but the puzzles were fabulous. The kind where you notice something a bit odd, file it away, and then come accross something a bit later that you realise is related. Aha! The lightbulb goes off. Intricate, pixelarty, satisfying stuff.