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Unknown Pleasures: A Chinese New Year

The best indie games on Steam this year

Strange things are afoot in steamgamesland. A powerful new force has begun to show its face on Western shores. Hailing from the tiny island nation of China, a wave of intrepid indie developers are shaking off a variety of undeserved reputations and delivering a solid fifth* of the shortlist of games we consider for Unknown Pleasures, the roundup of the best new games too few people are playing.

But did any of them make the final cut? Is this the beginning of a bright new era following Steam's recent controversies? And are any of them bloody roguelikes?

Adhering to the rule of three this week: non-dwarven fortresses, kindhearted fireflies, and China, China, CHINA.

Odd Realm
£7.19 / 8.19€ / $9.99, Early Access

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Dwarf Fortress continues to inspire games that are meant to be played by humans. Odd Realm includes the procedurally generated worlds, AI factions, digging and building across multiple Z-levels, and some of the organisational challenges and tools that make the less dramatic parts of DF tick. It has an interface that's several thousand times better (then again, so does this alien olfactory TV remote from the backwards dimension) and is generally much friendlier and less labyrinthine. The tradeoff is, of course, that it doesn't have the incredible level of detailed simulation, nor do its little people have the unique madness of Toady's ones. But! It's completely unfair to judge any game by another game's merits. So.

Odd Realm generates a world and you choose people (humans initially, with some refreshingly not-dwarves and not-elves unlockable later) and a part of it to settle. They'll plant crops, chop trees, build cabins or great halls or underground lairs. They'll pair off and breed, they'll make crafts, tools, furniture, and weapons. It's semi-intuitive (ie: if you've played management/building games you'll probably work things out), with a tutorial that expands and explains your options when you've got the tools to exploit them, without getting in the way. Some initiative is needed, but in this genre that's a good thing. The graphics are too small for my liking. I kept wanting to zoom in, if only to see my little electronic RPS staffers more clearly (Graham and Brendy almost immediately pairing off has changed my reading of this site forever). But they're attractive, and it all had a pleasant, calming tone. I'm not sure how deceptive that is, but this is one I'll be keeping an eye on over the year.

Roadclub: League Racing
£7.19 / 8.19€ / $9.99

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No, it's not the zany top down racers you or your parents remember from the 90s. Roadclub is a novel hybrid of those old Skidmarks/Micro Machines type arcade racing games, and a serious simulation where you have to brake sensibly and adjust the parts of your car, and you're not even encouraged to "turn" round corners by crashing into a rival at twice the speed of sound and bouncing off into the lead while cackling. Absurd.

But that's not to say it's joyless, nor that its tuning and upgrading systems are to be sniffed at. The meat of the game, career mode, is 6-division league of racers aiming to climb the ranks. While the driving is tricky, and recklessness will often cost you, the long game is forgiving, as failure to reach promotion simply means playing another season (unless you're demoted from the very bottom, naturally), which can be preferable as it offers potential to stockpile prizes from easier contests. You can even race disposable stock cars for no particular reason, aka the best reason.

There are different weather conditions, tweaking your cars helps cater to several styles of racing (as always, I favour great handling and acceleration, to better gain positions where I can barge people out of the way like an annoying child), and for those of you with friends, there's a 4 player split screen option. I'm a great host you know. I could have up to three friends if I wanted to. Shut up.

I like it. It's quickly rewarding, and not half as dry as stills make it look. And the random player names it comes up with are amazing. I make up about a dozen names a week, but Roadclub immediately gave me "Demigiga Rare" and I just can't compete.

孙悟空大战机器金刚 / Sun Wukong VS Robot
£2.09 / 2.39€ / $2.99

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It's not a roguelike! It is, however, a Metroidvania. But that's fine, and this one's done pretty well. A retro-style action platformer that makes good use of its fairly few parts and stars Sun Wukong, the infamous demon, joker, and general tosser out of Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West (he's likely better known here as Monkey from the bizarre 1970s TV adaptation).

It's a sort of retelling, as he awakes with a constricting headband and his powers stripped after 500 years of imprisonment. This time to free himself he must find and defeat four sinister boss robots (one of whom has an attack dog, the cheating git), smashing up lots of minions and gathering xp along the way. Victory unlocks more of Monkey's special skills, and occasional shops can swap XP for power ups and stat boosts, although the translation and UI make this system a little cumbersome.

Still, it's such a simple game that there's no great harm done, and provided you can reach a save point, you're not likely to lose out too badly even if you mess up somehow. It's a bit tricky, especially at the beginning. But it's also fair, and keeping a cool head will take you far. It has its own style, with cute but well drawn pixel graphics and a fondness for low, sinister throbs and hums in some rooms, and menacing silence in others. All without ever feeling too serious. Solid work.

Action Card Football
£7.19 / 8.19€ / $9.99

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A card-based game. About Americaball. God help us.

Action Card Football is a rather odd game in which you try to figure out what the hell is going on, whose meta-game is about playing a sport where the referee's only job is to stop the game any time something interesting happens. Considering I have no interest in either of its foundation blocks, I had a great time with it. I kind of want to recommend it to people like me, who might get a longevity bonus out of it while they try to puzzle out how it works, which is surprisingly easy to do as you go along.

Each team's relative strengths are measured, with some random chance. Choosing your team's strong suits, and anticipating your opponent weighs the odds in your favour. You think your opponent will pass. You have an option that's a particularly strong counter to a, uh, 4-split-prong pass. Choosing that will give all your lanes a few bonus points if you're right, but the opposite if you're wrong. The choices are revealed. Disaster! They're not going for a pass, they're going for a billy-fool dash. They get a bonus to all their dice rolls. Oof.

But! After this round, your players take position and face off, applying skill cards that tilt the odds in each lane one way or the other (these numbers and conditionals are bewildering, but make more sense with every match). Luck spares you - your balltouchers land lots of bonus cards. When all the numbers are tallied, most lanes come out about even, and the ball moves a mere 3 yards.

Thanks to the big chunky green and red arrows, all that tedious number crunching is rendered as clear visual advantages and risks. The weird bouncey players rolling and pinging off each other while making cute "hoi hoi hoi" noises certainly don't hurt.

Those of you who fully understand Americaball? I've no idea. Sorry. But it's kind of win-win because if it's good, you get a good game, and if it's boring and rubbish, well, that's your kind of thing anyway, right?

£15.49 / 16.79€ / $19.99

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Absolutely superb top-ish down (angled but not, I think, technically isometric, but since when have pedants ever played games?) shooter about blasting the hell out of loads of hovercraft with a wide variety of excellent ships and weapons.

Each level offers a choice of 3 random arenas, each with varying (and sometimes unknown) enemy types. Your choice of pilot dictates starting bonuses and guns, and each craft has differing hull strength, speed, and mobility. But any pilot can pick up any upgrade from crates and defeated foes, and half the fun is in experimenting with new guns and combinations. Learning the behaviour and abilities of enemy ships is crucial, as their behaviour ranges from fairly dense cannon fodder to crafty, tricky, dodgy, hidey blighters, and they can combine in unpredictable ways. They have a nasty habit of teleporting en masse at the wrong moment to the wrong place. You'll soon come to dread the distinctive sound of a boss warping in, not to mention the rival hunters, who can equip even the most devastating weapons just like you, and they'll often use tactics that make full use of them.

Arenas look sharp, as do the weapon effects and the many explosions (indeed, it chugs somewhat - detailed video options would be welcome). I love the way defeated enemies often flounder helplessly for a few seconds before detonating in a spray of scrap and delicious glowy things. I'm not entirely sure what most of the glowy things do, but when you kill someone you have to hoover up something, right?

军团战棋 / Legion War
£7.19 / 8.19€ / $9.99, Early Access

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There are certain art styles, and musical sounds, that scream "shovelware". It's hard to describe most of them, or even explain how you can identify them, but it's very much like the intuition just about all of you probably already have about when a website or email is obviously dodgy. You don't quite know how you know, but the pattern recognition part of your brain ("The primary visual cortex. Why was I even hired" - Neurobiology Ed) immediately nudges you. Legion War might fall into that space for you. That would be a mistake.

A turn based strategy game directly on the border between too complicated and too simplistic. I suppose a 4x, but not in the Civilisation mould, rather it's a bit like Heroes of Might and Magic, or Advance Wars scaled up to vastly bigger maps, with multiple rival players all fighting each other, and neutral bandits and wandering monsters in a free for all to see who can take the lot and eventually knee God in the clackers.

Troops are created outright - no slowly building here. Cities and mines generate the resources, and instantly build what you order. Units march out and claim mines, villages and the like, via a combat system that's impressively easy to learn. Even hero units are easy to manage, with minimal faffing about, and the fantasy setting is both familiar and a little different. Everything moves quickly so your time is never wasted, and unit counts are low enough that it doesn't feel like the late game chore of the civ-likes. Cities are upgraded however you like, and there's always something to be doing. Just as I've settled a fight in the East, my Western rivals have landed their army. Pushing them back by taking out their spellcaster with a sneaky assassin gave me breathing room just a turn before a wave of robots (bloody hell, there are robots?) made inroads into my northern patch. I never felt overwhelmed, nor felt like anyone was mathematically doomed or unstoppable.

It feels like the opening act of a 4x - you know, the fun part - stretched out far longer than I've ever seen before. The intrusion of city management is minimal. Optimising production and babysitting colonies is out entirely - at most, you get periodic events asking if you want to gamble resources against possible output increases (or burn the people suggesting them at the stake, a choice tantalisingly marked as drastic and not for beginners). It's damn fun.

Chromatic Aberration
£2.09 / 2.39€ / $2.99

You can shotgun tanks to death, a logic I approve of because realistic tanks are boring.

Faintly reminiscent of the terrifyingly 11 years old 8Bit Killer. I wavered a little over including Chromatic Abberration because it's a little thin compared to the rest of the selection this week, but that's unfair. It's a pixelated 2.5D shooter where you take a gun from a random guy because iono, then all the cops start shooting at you, so obviously there's nothing for it but to join the rebellion and gun down absolutely every ... oh wait I just remembered there's a plot about everyone being made into cyborgs. Well. It doesn't matter, really. The guns are simple and the AI easily fooled, but they sound and feel super. It's a fun, lighthearted scooting and shooting gallery for a couple of quid. Sometimes that's exactly what you need.

嗜血印 / Bloody Spell
£15.49 / 16.79€ / $19.99, Early Access

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Those of you who've been updating your 3m x 9m Things Sin Hates chart will know that Dark Souls type games wind me right up. Fortunately, Bloody Spell, while obviously strongly influenced by that series, makes a few changes to the formula that I'm hoping will survive its Early Access period. Chief among them: it's a bit less dreary and morose. It's certainly brown and dark and full of sour-faced stabmen in dingy caverns, but playing it feels less like steering a post-Krikkit Marvin through the Butlerian Jihad than it does a fairly normal game of creeping around a dungeon slashing dudes up. Most significantly, it does away with stamina entirely, so while combat is deadly, it's less slow and precise, adding a bit of Ninja Gaiden's sprawling rapid attacks and combos to the usual fussy proceedings.

It's a bit glitchy, and the translation is dire enough to be a problem occasionally. But the text can largely be ignored, and the fighting is already on its way to excellence. Opening chests of wood or flesh grants blood points, which are best spent on armour, weapons or magic stones from infrequent shops, the latter activating special magic skills with their own ammunition. Weapons are already well distinguished, and the animations are looking very strong. But death... does something weird.

When you die, you get punted back to the beginning, which is tedious. Instead of recovering stuff from your own corpse, you lose the lot, except for weapon and magic skills, and the level regenerates to a new layout, making repeated deaths slightly less wearing, but also harder to memorise. A curious arrangement.

It has a long way to go, but Bloody Spell is looking very promising, and intent on carving its own slightly offbeat path. I respect that.

She and the Light Bearer
£7.19 / 8.19€ / $9.99

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We've had a lot of violence in here this week. It's time for something more kind-hearted, and She and the Light Bearer is too sweet to pass up. This is a light adventure game with lots of dialogue (though not more than it needs), a story told by an elderly woman to a group of children who are grumpy the night before a festival. She begins to explain the purpose of the festival, a tale that begins with the creation of the land by Mother, who then goes to sleep. Enter a cute little firefly, who must explore the forest to find the sleeping goddess.

It's a gorgeous game. The art is lively and friendly, with dialogue and a story to match. The bits and pieces of narration lend a folk tale air without laying it on too thick. Each of the characters you meet is slightly silly and awkward, but difficult to dislike, even if they do tend to gate your progress with tests. That is rather in the spirit of this sort of story. Are you pure of heart? Can you pass the test of insight? You know the style. And the puzzles are similarly pitched. This is not a difficult game, and there's pretty much no fruitless clicking around and item rubbing, as interactive points are highlighted, and solutions tend towards the obvious. There's no pointless trudging about either though, nor any wasting your time with pointless obstacles. Child friendly, for sure, but it's also a peaceful, warm wee thing that you'd have to be pretty sour to take exception to.

Pick of the week: PION is excellent, and an early contender for shooter of the year.

You have to see it moving. It's marvellous.

It's the weapons. And the ships. You'll have your favourites but still try everything. It all feels fantastic, and even when it gets absurdly rough, I always feel like I could have done just a little better.

I favour the woman who gets a bonus to movement and starts with a chaingun, but variety is life. Scatterguns, spread blasters, absurdly powerful, penetrating lasers that triple the weight of your ship. The short range sparker seems useless until you pair it with freeze or dumbfire rockets. One cannon must be charged up, but can brutalise even larger ships if you keep calm and aim right. One missile creates a miniature black hole, and another is designed specifically for firing at a wall to splinter off a devastating cluster of missiles around the corner. It's tremendous fun, even at the chilling moment when you cross a rival who has one, and hides around corners, waiting for you to chance it.

Joint Pick of the week: Made, like everything else, in China. It's Legion War

Strategy games are nearly always too ponderous to stand a chance in UP, or too simplistic to hold my attention for long enough. This was a welcome surprise.

Forgive me for such a woolly word, but it's just so damn playable. The balance of depth and accessibility is marvelous, and turn based games very rarely hit the spot this neatly.

My favourite design detail is that instead of individual units earning upgrades, each XP gain instead goes into a pool shared by all units of that type (present and future). This is a fantastic idea, as it encourages risk-taking and directly rewards using all your resources to their full instead of playing conservatively, or feeling the frustrating sting of losing your best unit because all the others are too underlevelled to match them. It also differentiates factions that start out the same - my armies might look identical to my pink neighbour's, but they've got deadly archers and berserkers, while I've turned my militia into a mass of armoured, shield-walling, self-healing Bridge Gandalfs who gain bonuses from teaming up.

The translation is consistently off, mind, but it's good enough to work.

Now might be a good time to start brushing up on the old Mandarin, viewers. Our global community might be getting a little more global before long, and I for one am looking forward to a whole new source of bewilderment and obscure joy.

*spooky coincidence, eh, world population by nation fans?

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