Readers, I have put on my waders and made my way into the deep mill pool of the Steam Game Festival: Summer edition free demos. There are a lot, so I confined myself to RPGs. This isn't an exhaustive list, of course, even though I got overexcited and did far too many, but it's hopefully going to give you a place to start.
If you saw RPGs and thought "Christ, she's done a list of all elves and wizards and that" then you're wrong. There's only, like, two elves, and the rest is an array of witches, sentient animals, magic paintbrushes and surreal dreamscapes. Wares to suit every purse (especially because these demos are all free for the weekend, right?). If you can't be bothered to read the lovely words I spent ages writing for you, hit the jump to the bottom of page 2 and you can see the full list.
What is it? Neo-noir detective RPG where you are a tough-bitten raccoon in a tough-bitten overcoat, and everyone else is an animal too.
Who's it by? EggNut, Raw Fury
When is it out? 2021
I've talked about Backbone before, because it is achingly stylish and I love a detective story as much as the next man, especially when the next man is Vidbud Matthew Castle. While the art in Backbone is luverly, especially the lighting, I think the thing that most excites me about it is the dialogue. I can take or leave an "animal species as racism" metaphor (probably leave, if I had my druthers) but Backbone is one of the first games in a long, long while where having a conversation with an NPC actually feels like having a conversation.
You don't have a set 1,2,3 list of questions or options to ask. Your responses and dialogue choices evolve with the conversation, so you don't end up in immersion breaking loops. After all, if you've just asked someone how their wife is, it's weird to then immediately go "I'm looking for someone!". And in Backbone, you can't do that. You have to pay attention and think like you do when you have a chat in real life.
What is it? Distinctly less hard-bitten and more high-concept magical realism murder-mystery-exploration game set on an island outside of time and space.
Who's it by? Kaizen Game Works, Fellow Traveller
When is it out? 2020??
I did wonder if this strictly counts as an RPG, but fuck it, it's in the Steam tags for the game, so I'm 'avin it. You play as "investigation freak" Lady Love Dies, which I spose is what denizens of unreality call detectives. LLD has been called back in for one last job [spits out toothpick] after being exiled for donkeys years for an undisclosed transgression. There's been a terrible murder on Paradise Island, and as you explore the extremely weird 3D metropolis of unreality, you run into its extremely weird citizens - each a suspect! The case possibly involves ritual sacrifice, conspiracy, demons, jealously, and a space helmet that allows inter-dimensional travel. This is, I suspect, going to be a tough nut to crack. But what fun to split it open, reader!
What is it? Hyper-tropey D&D fantasy RPG, with tough tactical combat and its tongue in its cheek.
Who's it by? Artefacts Studio, Dear Villagers
When is it out? Summer 2020
I first had a go of this one at Digi-Rezzed a few months ago (God, remember when we were allowed to go outside and gather in groups??). This is the only fantasy RPG with a name like The Something Of Something Colon The Thing Of Something Else where I can be reasonably sure that it's a self-aware joke. That's Naheulbeuk's whole thing, really: massively taking the piss out of D&D. You lead a little band of adventurers through tactical turn-based combat in a grim dungeon full of orcs and what not. The archer is a blonde elf called The Elf, the ranger is an uptight beardy man called The Ranger, and the dwarf has a Scottish accent, an axe, and is called The Dwarf. Etc and so on. YMMV with the humour, as they say, but it belies the fact that the combat is bloody hard. You can't sleepwalk into this one.
What is it? A life sim RPG where instead of being an adventurer you're the one running the tavern they go to in between adventures.
Who's it by? Louquo, Metaboli Publishing
When is it out? Mid 2020
I'm a fan of conceptual twists on the mighty hero story (like Moonlighter and whatnot) and Travellers Rest does that whilst also being a fun life management RPG. The demo is only two days worth of game, but you can see how much depth the full thing could have. You can make different foods and brew beers with different flavour profiles, depending on the ingredients you use. There's a farm out the back where you can grow different hops and grains, you can hire staff, you can craft coasters to put on tables to reduce how often you need to wipe them down. If it gets too cold, you must stoke the fire, and if it gets to hot you must put it out. Anything to maintain a good rep in the community! Plus, I'm pretty sure you get a cat, and a pub that has a pub cat is an A+ pub.
What is it? Arthurian RPG with a mix of grid tactics and story, where the fights tell more of the story and the story affects the fights.
Who's it by? Inkle
When is it out? Summer 2020
I mean, when has Inkle done a game that isn't a cool story driven thing? In the demo you can start as either Guinevere or Lancelot, on a quest to save King Arthur from the grim and traitorous Mordred. Each map is an area of squares that you and your opponents (if any) take turns to navigate. You can change stance to move diagonally, cover more ground by rushing in a straight line, move freely from higher ground, and so on. It's a surprisingly tactical dance that demands careful thought, but at the same time, actions you take during these rounds can affect the story.
As Lancelot, I decided not to attack a group of villagers who were afraid and threatening me, choosing instead to move around them. But I could have tried to attack. That could have changed Lancelot's story, and thus changed his ability. As Guinevere I decided that I didn't love Arthur, but would still help him - and that gave me the ability to attack on the diagonal. Pendragon is therefore a pleasingly holistic game, and I hope that one of the blacked out character portraits in the start menu is Mordred himself. Fun to be bad, innit?
What is it? Genuinely funny tactical RPG with squad combat where your squad is a band and you are in a battle of the bands to the death.
Who's it by? Deathbulge, Five Houses
When is it out? 2021
I do not say a game is genuinely funny lightly, because most of the time they are not, and yet Deathbulge is. I think it's because it's not trying too hard. Our hero, Faye, a lead guitarist with pink hair shaped like a Flying V, is in the Tone Wood (a forest of extremely ripped trees) to find bassist Ian. Ian is a really hench skeleton, I think, who like fish. Faye signed them up for a battle of the bands but found out too late it was a cursed competition. Now the fight is one to the death.
The combat is a sort of combination of real-time and turn based, in that your turn comes up when your icon moves to the end of your on screen fretboard. You can use abilities to add status effects to the enemy fretboard, or buff your own, and can swap to one of your bandmates at any time. Your attacks are, obviously, musical - a really fast solo, a really low note, that kind of thing. The theme is carried admirably by e.g. health potions being "merch", but in the demo at least nobody was trying too hard to make jokes about metal bands or whatever (although there was one good bit where a keyboard player said he was there to give demos, but the demo wasn't available in the demo and for the demo you'd have to get the full game, followed by about half a screen of HA HA HA HAs). Also I loved the enemy design. The boss battle near the end was with a giant snail made of fists.
There are even more RPG demos to be recommended on page two...
What is it? At times surreal, at times dark adventure RPG in a slightly nightmarish world where you and three friends escape from... wherever you are.
Who's it by? Studio Zevere
When is it out? 2020
Sin actually found the She Dreams Elsewhere demo a couple of weeks back, but it's under the Steam Game Fest umbrella now so I'm going to hype it again. Thalia chases her lovely dog into an oppressive dreamscape populated by strange monsters, but her friends Amia and Oliver turn up to help. The look will get comparisons to something like Undertale, but honestly the biggest vibe I got was Persona (specifically Persona 5, the only one I have played). It's a gang of friends in a strange dream world, taking on weird monstrosities in turn based combat by finding said monstrosities weaknesses. Freeze 'em! Give 'em a sick burn! A withering put down! Excellent stuff.
While Sin said a lot about the theming and writing of She Dreams Elsewhere, I want to emphasise again that the soundtrack is a real standout feature that has burrowed into my brainspace. This game also does amazing things with colour. Because the majority is in black and white, colour can be used to highlight objects you interact with, or to indicate a sudden atmospheric change or wrongness. Also, the save points are dogs.
What is it? Part crafting, part puzzle solving, all witchy occult business in some lovely 2.5D woods.
Who's it by? Allentrap
When is it out? 2020
This wins the award for game I hadn't heard of until the Game Festival and now love. In Wytchwood you play an honest-to-goodness crone, not a roly-poly old lady witch or a winsome cat girl witch, but a proper wizened ol' bundle of sticks with hands and feet like claws. She lives in a cottage in a swamp, and everything looks like a pop-up book or little cardboard diorama. The witch is awakened by a less sexy Black Phillip goat and sent on a quest to open a shrine door, which of course means finding ingredients for sacrifice.
In practise this involved ambling around a nice forest in autumnal colours and talking to the people you find there. I needed to make frog slime, so a lad gave me a net and promised me a frog in exchange for five fireflies. I needed dog hair, and the dog's owner said it needed calming down with a soporific potion. Which I could make, but first I needed some mushrooms and some meat, and for that I needed to make a critter trap and find some purple mushrooms. Although it took me a while to figure out the controls for my inventory and dread witch's grimoire, this one really truly charmed me, and I can't wait to do the dark goat's bidding in the full thing.
What is it? Another witch 'em up, this time with added magical combat and helping out locals with demon problems.
Who's it by? Morteshka, HypeTrain Digital
When is it out? Q1 2021
I'm not sure if my partner died and my Grandad was like "welp, better sell your soul to the devil and open 8 forbidden seals to bring him back from the dead, then" I would characterise him as being part of a healthy support system during my grief, but it takes all sorts. In fact, your sorceress character is really just following the family line of work in becoming a witch. The combat is comparable to a deck, except you choose to play words of power from the Titular Black book. The pages rewrite themselves after you play one, which is the analogue to more cards being drawn from the deck.
But the most interesting bit is that you have to do the day to day business of witching, i.e. seeing people who have come to you for help and advice. The first of these, in the demo, is a miller who has been seeing strange shapes in the darkness at his mill. So the next day you have to go visit the mill and see what's up. It's sort of a Granny Weatherwax 'em up, in that way - although in this case most of the demons are real, so you can't use headology and sugarwater placebos.
What is it? Use a magic paintbrush to return colour to the world and also do some pretty intense boss fights that you probably weren't expecting.
Who's it by? Greg Lobanov, Finji
When is it out? 202X
Greg Lobanov did Wandersong, so a colourful adventure that allows players to be easily creative without judgement is well in line with that. I say no judgement; my little dog (who ended up being called Mac n Chee because the game asked me my favourite food but did not leave enough room for the "se") was asked to recolour in a local's house with the magic paintbrush they now wielded, but said local didn't like my work! I call that ungrateful.
Mac n Chee comes from a land of personified animals where colour is added by the paintbrush, which is entrusted to a master artist of each generation. But disaster has struck, the current artist is missing, and all the colour in the world has vanished! Chicory involves some nice traversal puzzling involving trees that shrink when coloured in and mushrooms that explode paint when you jump on them, and you can flick between colours on your brush and draw squiggles everywhere - wherever you like! But at the end of the demo I also ran into a boss fight that was sort of a My First Bullet Hell of revolving eyeballs. This, I was not expecting. But it was a welcome surprise.
What is it? Another turn based tactical RPG in a more traditional fantasy setting, where a group of mercs fight demons and monsters with magic and swords.
Who's it by? Curious Panda Games, Humble Games
When is it out? 2020
I have to admit, there's a part of me that does kind of switch off if I see a bunch of hexagons appear on the floor during combat, but it's as good a way to measure movement and area of effect as any. The Iron Oath starts just as one of your compatriots gets munched by a big demon, while you're on a mission to escort some refugees through a sort of hell mine. Similar to Wildermyth, members of your group will die, age and retire, but the band itself keeps going. The game is a combination of managing combat encounters and navigating the world (whether over or underground) and I found it hard as balls in a way that I know will appeal to a lot of you.
A bunch of my characters started bleeding out, I was too cautious and spent ages scouting ahead, so my party started getting tired, and I didn't properly manage the healing abilities of one of my team members in combat. But the way you can combine abilities (knockbacks into glyphs on the floor, for example) is fun, and the creature and chracter design is great. Complete with the death animations, actually, which are well fun and a bit glory. The animations for attacks and spells are cool too, and sometimes the screen does a big zoom when one happens.
What is it? Beautifully animated time-travelling JRPG where puzzles and combat can go into the past and future.
Who's it by? Dreams Uncorporated, Modus Games, Syck
When is it out? November 17, 2020
I've put this last because it has an actual release date locked in, but it is by no means least. The animation and art style is like an extremely high budget Cartoon Network Saturday morning show - one for empowering girls but with jokes for the parents, probably. I imagine it's called Cris Tales because the two characters you play as in the demo are called Crisbell (the lead) and Cristopher (the boy). Crisbell suddenly gains the ability to see into the present, past and future at the same time, represented by your screen being split into thirds.
You solve environmental puzzles and make choices this way - getting ingredients from the future to use in a potion in the present, for example. But you can also use the time crystal powers in combat. Crisbell can send an opponent into the future when they're old, or the past when they're young. In the demo boss fight, Cristopher throws water on the enemy's impenetrable shield in the present, so when they're wellied into the future the shield is rusted. It's very clever.
The Full List
2. Paradise Killer
3. The Dungeon Of Naheulbeuk: The Amulet Of Chaos
4. Travellers Rest
6. Deathbulge: Battle Of The Bands
7. She Dreams Elsewhere
9. Black Book
11. The Iron Oath
12. Cris Tales
If you're looking for RTS or city builders, action games, strategy games or management games, check out our other best of the Game Fest lists here.
Whatever you call it, hit our E3 2020 tag for more from this summer's blast of gaming announcements, trailers, and miscellaneous marketing. Check out the PC games at the PlayStation 5 show, everything at the PC Gaming Show, and all the trailers from the Xbox showcase, for starters.