It's another transitional time, view-chums, when the students are settling, the returning TV dramas are nervously eyeing up various sharks, and I must decide which of my first ever batch of plants must be sacrificed to the ice gods. Will it be Younas, the defiant mortar tomato? Surely it couldn't be Wilfred, producer of the Great Unexpected October Chilli? Oh, the terrible burden of choice!
Fortunately, the demands of the column have prepared me, and in fact this time we're having not five, not ten, but eight of the best overlooked games on Steam. Nobody tells Unknown Pleasures what to do. Except Graham. And Alice. And sometimes Brendy. And the magistrate that one time.
Making a noble sacrifice this week: Genetic meddling, smooth transitions, and Wooian manshoots.
Galaxy Champions TV
£ 5.19 / 6.99€ / $ 6.99
A twin-stick shooter modelled on one of the earliest and most famous to sad old dorks, Smash TV. Galaxy Champions TV is refreshingly free of timewasting. Its tutorial is over in seconds and you're quickly set loose in a single-screen arena, into which pour legions of hostile aliens bent on fatally bumping into you. But you have a gun.
It's immediately rewarding and every weapon, even the starter one, is effective. The others are dropped when you shoot certain aliens, carry a limited supply of ammunition, and only one can be wielded at a time. This lends a light tactical consideration as you try to squeeze the most out of every gun, but mostly it's a game about getting into that zone of dodging without really thinking.
At the end of most rounds you're given a choice of three upgrades, the most fun of which make a specific weapon type more powerful. A basic laser is a decent gun, but a laser with two upgrades is a giant glowbeam of apocalyptic ruin, so they're well worth picking.
You can take several hits before dying and have multiple lives, so even as the difficulty rises, it feels fair and demands to be replayed rather than given up on. A very, very solid shooter, worthy of its ancestors.
£10.99 / 14.99€ / $14.99
Survival games, almost impossible to find a mere 5 years ago, now number in the trillions across several subgenres. 60 Parsecs! is somewhere between strategy, rpg and narrative survival, but the important thing is it's great.
Your pick of two survivors get the two minute warning about the end of the world, leaving you one minute to dash about grabbing whatever you think you'll need and bunging it 2 or 3 items at a time into your space shuttle. This is just brilliant. It turns the pre-game setup menu into a panicky challenge instead, especially when you go in blind and have no idea what to prioritise. And some of the "items" you can lug to the shuttle are other characters.
Then the 1-4 of you float in space, surviving one active dilemma per day, until you (hopefully) land on a planet. Once there you survive as long as you can by recycling and upgrading whatever tools you have, keeping everyone fed, healthy, and sane, and sending crew out to explore. Dilemmas ask you either a yes/no decision, usually about interfering with something, or which item or character skill you'll use to resolve a situation, assuming you have any. Each result tends to either grant resources or hurt someone, with an entertaining but succinct write up too. It has a cheerfully pessimistic style and a mild, inoffensive sense of humour. While I'm sure there are optimal ways to play, I got the impression you can wing it a bit and focus on enjoying yourself rather than stressing too much.
That said, I managed to survive my way to a plot resolution on my first planet an agonising two days after my lackey and friend Deedee starved to death. In the game.
£7.19 / 8.19€ / $9.99
Ha, the intro text was relevant! You see? There is a plan.
What if I could take the lovely big leaves of my basils, but make them red? Or reign in the ugly raspberry leaves and have them grow like the sweet little chilli leaves instead? Or or or I could have tall and narrow spiney things like the chives but with the flowers on top from the lettuce?
That's the kind of thing Mendel is about. A walking simulator crossed with a less sprawling, spreadsheety version of Simlife. You're a wee robot who's landed on a colourful wee island populated with undiscovered wee plants. Wee. What you do with that is up to you, but since the only tool at your disposal is a genetic splicey doodad, it's probably gonna get pretty mutant-y before long.
Each plant produces flowers, which you harvest and combine and "plant" to create a hybrid, which will grow as you watch. There's an obvious effort to simulate sexual reproduction to some degree (albeit with a high mutagenic factor to make things less predictable), as plants with the same parents can inherit differently.
You can name any species as you see fit, and the game tracks heredity, noting genetic similarities among even very different-looking plants. There's no defined goal or 'achievements' or anything of the sort, and you could spend your time replanting the whole island with Bert Bush, or crossbreeding Caelyn Pipes with Smingleigh Trees over and over just so you can annoy your friends, or obsessively selecting for the perfect hybrid of Lara Brush and Spongleweed. It's a slow game, as much about watching things grow and sway with the wind as it is about the results, so be prepared to sit back and enjoy the imaginary breeze.
£2.89 / 3.29€ /$ 3.99
CYBERPUNK KLAXON. Akane is a slishy slashy dude massacrer that, like quite a few good action games, annoyed the bejesus out of me for a little while before I got into its rythms. Which is honestly a good thing sometimes, as it indicates that there's some skill involved, and that said skill can be acquired quickly.
You have a sword and a gun, and a neon cyberload of goons is standing between you and some guy that you really absolutely must introduce to a pointy stick. Both you and they die after a single hit, but you're faster and smarter than them (well, most of you). That gun recharges with time and sword kills, allowing you to alternate between slashing dudes up while your gun charges, and rudely shooting their friends while your stamina undepletes. Hack up enough mooks in succession and you charge up a special attack, or a super special attack, and if you get far enough you'll have a boss fight that is far easier than your oafish panicky mistakes will make it seem.
There are unlockables to tilt your balance of abilities back and forth, and alternative weapons, and if you separate enough dudes from their feet in quick succession, survivors in their group will sometimes try to flee.
£11.39 / 12.49€ / $14.99, Early Access
"Stranglehold but good" is one of many possible openers I juggled for this, but it's not entirely fair as Maximum Action is incredibly ropey and rough and very obviously work in progress. But my word it is FUN.
It has a long way to go in terms of content, but the shooting and booting at the core are so entertaining that it outweights the glaring bugs and minimal levels. You run through levels full of goons, dive-kicking them in the face and shredding them with their own shotgun, then throwing it at their mate, taking his pistol and shooting a third, picking up the shotgun again and dual wielding it with the revolver you found and jumping in slow motion through a window to kneecap yet another villain with an uzi, and goodness me this is chaos.
It's deliberately low-res, removing the horror of the violence and invoking the punchy bullet impacts, blocky models and angry, shovel-faced men of Goldeneye, but without all the annoying backtracking and escort missions. Hard Boiled meets Hotline Miami, and for some reason there's a replay feature that is hilariously buggy. Characters vlob in and out of existence, angles change for no apparent reason, entire sequences of events replay completely differently to how they actually went. I almost hope they don't change it, it's so bonkers.
Landinar: Into the Void
£14.49 / 15.99€ / $15.99, Early Access
You know that space game you've always wanted, where you can fly around trading and fighting and also wander about space stations talking to people, with seamless transitions between the two?
Landinar obviously has some work ahead of it. The flight AI is simple minded, and there's unused space waiting to be filled, but that's what Early Access is for. It's showing great promise.
You pilot a ship around an open 'world', picking up missions or cargo or passengers and generally doing whatever you please. There's an alright tutorial from an NPC who offers further work if you like more structure, but it looks likely to remain a very sandy region of space. What it already does unusually well is placing you in the ship as a person. Docking at stations means manually lining up to ports, which extend ramps you run across, and explore yourself, talking to people and visiting shops and VIPs. There are even little customs officers you can declare to if you're carrying anything notable.
Most promising of all, you're encouraged to build your own ship. This is modular but easily grasped, as the limitations are mostly based on fitting things into the visible space on the ship rather than the daunting reams of arcane knowledge a lot of "build your own" type games dump on new players. Want to dump some cargo? You'll have to leave the cockpit and go to the cargo module to do it, but all in a very user-friendly way, with the interface aiding rather than hindering you.
An early mission asked me to capture a pirate for a bounty after he ejected, and I totally ejected one of my passengers to do it. Vega Taxis: We'll take you somewhere!™
£9.29 / 9.99€ / $11.99
I risk alienating most of you by saying "hidden object game". Most on Steam are full-on shovelware punted out by Big Fish Games, an arm of a sinister corporate beast that ran afoul of US gambling laws earlier this year. They're one of the few things I don't even bother to look at anymore.
So I was as surprised as anyone by Adera. It's a very lightweight point and click adventure game with hidden object sections and puzzles, none of which are very challenging. But they're all pleasant and require just enough attention, and offer just enough feedback to stand out. The production values are remarkably high for a normally - forgive me, but it's true - cheap and crappy genre. You play as Jane, an adventurer (archaeology/explorer type, not mass murderer type) looking for her grandfather, who along with her friend and pilot is stranded in the desert when a mysterious orb does mysterious, orbly things. There are brief cut scenes and pretty images and animations, and professional voice acting done with noticeable enthusiasm. The music will never stick in your head, but it too is competent and sets the mood well.
It's about as calming as an adventure game will ever get, indeed most seasoned item-rubbers will find it insultingly trivial. But as a frustration-free, harmless light clicky adventure/puzzler with a story, Adera is a welcome diversion.
£7.19 / 8.19€ / $9.99
An action RPG and 2D side scrolling shooter, but not the arcade-style bullet hell affair most of those are. You pilot a spaceship (sort of) that duels small groups of highly reactive foes rather than the more usual pre-calculated swarms, resulting in a slower but less rote fight in which you have to think about how to counter certain enemy types, and even lead your shots a little.
Key to this is the modular upgrades of your ship - along with functionally money, you loot ship parts from enemies and as rewards for clearing out sectors, and can staple them onto your frame to grant bonuses or perks as you like. Increased chance for finding money, more damage, limited regeneration, that sort of thing. Levelling up gives you more room to bolt pieces on, or access better special weapons and abilities.
It takes a little getting used to, but the art style is neat and the chunky ships slough off shrapnel and blang open well. It could use a little more clarity in the ui text or tutorial, as it took me a while to figure out I could go back and do side missions to level up and gather gear before proceeding with the plot. I felt underpowered and suspect I was unfortunately landed with a poor weapon, but some of the missions and individual fights did drag on a bit. Good stuff though.
Pick of the Week: Minimum hesitation, Maximum Action.
There are few rules in the Pleasuredome, but there are strong inclinations, and any game that I repeatedly load up again instead of the next contender is always a good bet. I almost started playing it "just for a minute" while looking up the link to the trailer.
This is the kind of game that demands to be taken in turns with a friend for hours while you eat and drink and talk about family worries and the state of the world and that sore breakup you're both skirting around. It's funny and silly and scrappy and rewards both slapstick mucking about and skilful first-personing. There's nowhere near enough of it. There can perhaps never be enough of it.
Much like time. Oh, my precious first time herb garden. You were so young.