Steam has blessed us once again with the paralysing terror of having too much choice. Like a Friday night "what d'you wanna watch on Netflix? Like, a comedy or...?" of indecision, but lasting an entire week. Yes, it is another Steam Game Festival showcasing upcoming games and free demos for them, and this time there are 500 of the things!
Covering the Steam Game Fest has actually become one of my favourite things to do. Each time I play I am staggered, yet again, by how many good games there actually are. Alas, it's impossible for me to play 500 demos, but I've played quite a few, and have curated a list of my favourites to give you a jumping off point. There's a bit of action, puzzling, strategy, platforming, and unsettling groups of tiny mushroom people going "Dap!"
Would that I could have done more. To paraphrase Lucas from Empire Records, I do not regret the games I played, but those I did not play.
What is it? Unsettling platformer where you are a small child in a world of adult monsters.
Who's it by? Tarsier Studios, Bandai Namco
When is it out? February 10th
The original Little Nightmares remans one of my favourite games of all time, so no surprises that I'd be pointing you in the direction of the sequel. This demo has been kicking around since last year, and it's of the creepy, forest-full-of-traps area, earlier in the game than the creepy hospital/home for sentient crash-test dummies I played for preview. But it's in the Steam Game Fest, so it counts!
Like the original, Little Nightmares II so far excels at environmental storytelling, especially when we take "envrionmental storytelling" to mean "using the environment to hint at what has taken place" rather than "creating pages and pages of an expositional diary or voice memos that explain everything, and putting them in the environment". Though in ths game you sometimes have the chance to fight back (in limited ways), it still hews to the principle that made me love the first game: when you are so very small, everything in the world is frightening.
What is it? Medieval alchemist simulator.
Who's it by? Niceplay Games, tinyBuild
When is it out? 2021
How often have we all idly dreamt of being a weirdo who lives alone at the edge of town and offers people bottles of gunk we've mashed up from flowers and spit? In Potion Craft you, an alechmist, craft potions and sell them to a parade of medieval oddballs who are as likely to be attacking some species of strange ice monster as they are to have gotten a sore thumb. You listen to their complaint, and then hawk them a brew of mushrooms and leaves from your alchemical garden. The smashing up in the pestle and mortar is my fave bit.
Recipes are discovered and completed on your alechemical potion map, with diffrent ingredients advancing your current potion in different directions. This flower might send it on a loop towards the right; that muddy weed on a wiggle down. It's a nice way to give more purpose than just throwing stuff in and hoping, and makes it feel as much about instinct and art as knowledge.
What is it? Arty, story-driven noir adventure about The Big Bang and jazz.
Who's it by? Feral Cat Den, Fellow Traveller
When is it out? Q1 2021
It feels like I've been waiting for Genesis Noir to come out for forever, which is probably and appropriate kind of metaphor for the game itself. It's a detective noir story that's figuratively the size of the universe - the Big Bang is the sound of a gunshot, fired by a jealous god.
Playing Genesis Noir is a process of exploring the environment, pushing and pulling to see what happens and what sounds you make. Your character is a jazz sax player, too, so music is a big part of the game. We've been bleating about it for a while, so it's a good chance to try for yourself and decide if you're on board.
What is it? Sweet, creative word puzzle game about growing up.
Who's it by? 5am Games
When is it out? 2021
I saw Letters at GDC a while ago, and this demo is the build I played back then - but better, slicker, and with more to do. And it comes with a better tutorial section now, too. You play as Sarah, a student from Switzerland, and follow her as she grows up and discovers who she is, through school and into her career.
You do this by platforming as a tiny version of her through her pen pal letters and IM chats. The cool bit is that you can grab words from them, and use these to solve small puzzles or choose what Sarah decides to do. You can also break words apart to make new ones - turn "sunshine" into "shine" and you can switch on the beacon of a lighthouse.
You might be thinking "hey this sounds similar to that other game Lost Words", and you're not wrong, but I saw Letters first and I am protective of it and want more people to know about it.
What is it? Point 'n' click comedy-X-Files detective bants.
Who's it by? Spooky Doorway, Akupara Games
When is it out? Coming soon
I enjoyed the first instalment of The Darkside Detective and was pleasantly surprised to see that it's making a return. It's the sort of game where the pixelart characters will make reference to the fact that their faces have no features, so, you know. Mileage. Vary. But for my money, the jokes hit way more often than they miss.
The demo sees Detective McQueen and his sidekick Officer Dooley investigate a knowingly creepy funfair, with some good puzzles and a hefty slice of The Darkside Detective's peculiar tone, which is of a European writing a send-up of the TV version of the USA. People say "mate" and "mom" in the same sentence. I find it very charming, if a bit off-kilter.
What is it? Neo-retro sidescrolling Metroidvania with a banging soundtrack.
Who's it by? Studo Koba, Team 17
When is it out? Early 2021
A regular boy becomes a digital hero when he's sucked into the Digital Kingdom, the code within a developer's game that has itself become sentient and formed a digital society. Said society is threatened by a breakaway group of evil code people, the Stallions. Armed with the Techno-sword (which can also turn into a shotgun, among other powers), Narita Boy must save the (virtual) world!
It's fun. The commitment to the late 80s/early 90s aesthetic is impressive - the screen is made to look like a fuzzy CRT, even. There's a lot of lore dumping in the early stages, which I think is intentionally silly, but I still found it tiresome to wade through. Thing is, I could tell in a hot second that loads of you are going to bloody love this game. So here it is.
What is it? Creepy Pikmin
Who's it by? Melting Parrot
When is it out? 2021
Daps are little mushroomy-spore creatures that say "dap!" or sometimes "dapdapdap" and they are both cute and unsettling. You speak to other Daps and convince them to follow you in a big group through a swampy forest that is dark and full of terrors. Some of those terrors are Daps that have been infected with bad spores, and they become very aggressive and sprint at you, shrieking, from the trees. Part action, part horror, all Dap. I do not like it. It is good.
What is it? Gentle, joyful, melancholy pixelart adventure game.
Who's it by? Mojiken, Toge Productions
When is it out? Coming Soon
Katharine wrote about the demo for A Space For The Unbound in a supporter post just over a year ago and it remains well worthy of a play now. Set in 90s rural Indonesia, you play a boy called Atma, who has a slightly younger friend called Nirmala. The two are writing a sweet story about a magical princess, and the book containing it gives Atma the ability to step into the subconcious of people who are susceptible to it.
You nudge a sleepy municipal officer into having a nap, for example, by turning off the alarm clock in his mind. But you also see Nirmala's fear of being laughed at for writing a bad story. It's like the wholesome version of fighting a pervert's inner demons in Persona. Elswhere, in the real world, you also run into Nirmala's angry, authoritarian father. But you can pet cats too. It's a constant tug between sweet and bittersweet, wrapped up in lovely pixelart.
What is it? Afrofuturist XCOM.
Who's it by? Heart Shaped Games
When is it out? Q1 2021
My favourite thing here is the character design, I think. It's so refreshing to see squad-based combat where the squads aren't all beefy Space Marine boys in massive armour. As the leader of the Caretakers, you command said squads in a quest to protect the Raun, creatures that look like a cross between rhinos and Knuckles the echidna. A baby one joins your squad and it is brilliant.
On top of different classes, a headquarters to expand, and turn-based combat to engage in, We Are The Caretakers has a reputation system, with your standing going up or down depending on your actions (do you let the poacher off with a warning, or try and recruit him?). You can also deploy multiple squads at once, which adds an interesting complexity to missions.
[Disclosure: Xalavier Nelson Jr, who wrote for us a bunch of times, is Narrative Director of Heart Shaped Games. He needs to stop doing stuff tbh because it's getting hard for me to keep track of all the disclosures.]
What is it? Enchanting yet unsettling hand-drawn adventure.
Who's it by? Studio Fizbin, Mixtvision
When is it out? March 18th
Another one that I heard about from Katharine raving about it, I was only half paying attention to the screens and thought "oh sweet, another wholesome puzzle adventure game about a girl that keeps her arms inside her massive coat".
Then, like when you go to the toilet in the middle of the night and step on the bath mat and it's, like, kind of slimy - like, not wet or damp, there is actually something slippery and unidentifiable on it - and you go "augh what the fuck is that??", Minute Of Islands served me a rotting whale spilling its intestines onto a sunny beach. And just like that, I'm in. The fact that it's all drawn something like a cross between Studio Ghibli and Adventure Time has only made me more in.
What is it? Like Rollercoaster Tycoon, but for music festivals.
Who's it by? Johannes Gäbler
When is it out? TBD
That screenshot there is not of my time playing the demo, because my own attempt at building a successful music festival was an abject and shameful failure. I have a modicum of sympathy for the Fyre Festival people now.
Festival Tycoon is split into two halves: the building stage and the live stage. The building stage is where you will likely spend most of your time because once you hit go on the festival, that's it. You can't make changes. No going back. That means, in the first stage, you have to place your stages, set out your camping areas and depressing banks of toilets, slot in the merch and food stalls... and then, because you've run out of money, you have to find sponsors, and then book bands and plan the lineups... It's... it's a lot. Impressively granular. I think to do it successfully I'd need to pre-plan playing the game in a notebook, as well.
What is it? Alien kitchen management game/Sweeney Todd in space.
Who's it by? Liquid Pug, Daedalic Entertainment
When is it out? Q2 2021
You know me, reader. I like to be surprised. So imagine my delight when I booted up the demo for this, a 3D time management game where you make burgers. I thought the twist was that it was set in space. It is not. The twist is that you make burgers from your customers.
It's difficult enough to keep up with supply and demand, but you also have to make sure nobody sees you killing someone else (for obvious reasons), wash the bloodstains off your nice apron, pay your bills, upgrade traps, and bribe the space cops. AND the different aliens have preferred other aliens they like to eat, which you have to figure out by watching them while they chomp their burgers. The aliens in the demo like eating themselves. Boke.
What is it? Cute puzzle-platformer in a very relaxing town.
Who's it by? Orbital Express, Playism
When is it out? Spring 2021
Look I can't tell you loads about this because it isn't translated into English yet, but I saw it during the asobu showcase last year and thought it looked super cute. And it is!
You, Yukumo, are travelling around in your airship when it breaks down in a town that is curiously deserted, apart from some little catlike people. I don't know if they're the regular residents of the town, or if they're just hanging around. But you can get what you're supposed to do pretty quickly: collect golden lanterns. Some of them are floating around, luring you to do some platforming. Some are given to you by the cat people in exchange for doing odd jobs, like pulling weeds. I do not know why I was collecting these lanterns, only that I found doing so - and jumping around the silent, beautiful town - very soothing.
What is it? City builder in a world where beavers are the supreme being.
Who's it by? Mechanistry
When is it out? Early Access in Q1 2021
Timberborn is set in a world where humans have pissed their society up the wall and beavers have evolved to take their place. So, like, 20-30 years in the future. I liked this because the central premise means that your city is tied to the river. You must not only pump water from it, but also use it as a source of power. I built a water wheel that then had to be connected to buildings with a series of mechanisms to transfer that power. Good stuff.
It's also, naturally enough, very wood-based. You have to be careful not to over-forest for building materials. Luckily, trees grow back very fast. Unluckily, I didn't have enough time to fully demystify the complexities of the buildings and resources and supply chains, so my Beaverton was an unimpressive affair of mud and sticks. I bet you could build something well impressive with enough effort, though.
What is it? *hacker voice* I'm in.
Who's it by? Wooden Monkeys, Alawar Premium
When is it out? ???
This is, on the quiet, probably my favourite game I played, after all the other ones which are also my favourite. You play Isabella Song, a PI who Is entirely from her home. She is on house arrest for being a naughty little hacker. The top third of the screen shows her apartment (replete with small dog) and the bottom half shows Isabella's computer screen.
This is all Isabella needs to remotely hack into basically any building in the city, each of these being small puzzles where you override cameras and flip switches at the right time. Then, with the information gathered, you can ring people up and politely threaten them in conversational puzzles to get even more info. These sections became a little frustrating, and required a bit of trial and error, but overall I found this one a delight. The first case is finding a missing robot dog. I particularly enjoyed that, when one villain starts talking about how Isabella is just a mirror of him, not so different you and I, etc. and so on, you have the option to respond, basically, "wtf are you talking about, dude?"