Sometimes you don't know what you need until you have it. Lately it turns out I've needed a lot of soothing, which is fortunate because this week's selection of the best indie games on Steam ranks highly on the alleviometer. We've the usual variety you've surely come to expect, and a bit less of the drama and thrills than average.
It is time, once more, for some long overdue Unknown Pleasures.
Chilling out, maxing and relaxing all cool this week: plague doctors, Arabian cyberpunks, and... underground goddamn monsters.
1001st Hyper Tower
£9.29 / 9.99€ / $11.99, Early access
A bizarrely cool, coolly bizarre spin on both roguelike structure and the often blandly derivative Minecraft blockman visual style. It has a hint of the fever dream about it, with its slightly distorted effects, trancey music, and alien, hazardous architecture. You must explore, shoot, boot, and loot the strange mercenaries and monsters in your path but above all climb. The handful of guns you can carry could use fire, energy or bullets, and ammunition is very limited. Making smart use of the few upgrade points you collect can make a huge difference, but you can often give assailants a solid boot off the tower (indeed, it's often best to do so just to be sure they won't get up again, especially if you don't have an incendiary weapon), although those ledges also make you a target for the buzzing drones up above. You can also simply bypass a lot of areas using your multiple jumps, but who knows what loot you're missing out on, nor what dangers you'll land in a few minutes later if you lose your footing.
It's tough, it's chaotic, and the fantastic Arabian cyperpunk aesthetic really injects something special into an often frustrating design school.
The World Next Door
£11.69 / 12.99€ / $14.99
"There are two worlds", said a game, "the world of humans, and the world of mag-"
"Siiiiiiiiiiiiiigh", said the player, reflexively hammering the Esc key, now mere molecules thick, "fine, just get on with it."
Except! I was on board for this one within a sentence or two. Instead of being divided by the hatred-based Ancient Accords or the Plot Stone or the Yawn Artifice, the human/machines world and the demon/magic world are very chummy with each other and that's how everyone likes it. Once a year, the portal joining (not dividing, you see) them opens, and random people from each are allowed to visit the other world for a day before it closes, as a cultural exchange programme.
This is refreshing! This is how little it takes to make even a common setup a bit more appealing. But anyway. You are Jun, a human enjoying the last few hours of her lucky day in the magic world with her new friend. She takes you for some harmless low-level delinquency with her own friends, trying out a few magic tricks in an old shrine. Naturally, things go wrong and you miss your shimmery window home. It turns out that staying in the 'other' world for more than a few days is fatal, and so you and your new chums must battle through mysteriously awakening nasties to try to find you a way back.
The battles are a sooort of match 3 puzzle. When monsters appear, the tiled floors light up with symbols, and by running around you can swap tiles around to form shapes, thus casting spells or summoning your choice of magical pal to throw in a power attack. It's really well pitched difficulty wise - some concentration is necessary, but you can afford to flail a bit and wing it. The writing is likeable too, with your friends filling in fairly typical US teen sitcom roles, but with the right level of warmth, and their pleasant babbling Simlish doing away with any threat of unwelcome severity.
I like that there are bits when you have to choose 3 out of your 4 new friends to talk to, as I was more than willing to ignore Rainy every time, the insufferable self-pitying wuss.
£15.99 / 19.99€ / $19.99
I'm counting this as one of this week's themed games, despite its being largely about combat. Windscape is a micro-Skyrim, pared down to the fighting, gathering, and fetching things. The huge world and options aren't there, but that's fine, as its aim is very different, and the fiddliness bathwater is thrown out along with that exhausting, unwieldy baby - what Windscape loses in complexity and scale, it gains in charm and focus.
There's a bare minimum of preamble - you're on your family's farm - before an errand takes you away across the land to deliver a letter. Along the way you'll fight a wolf and possibly some bees, and likely pick a few flowers. And that's the game's essence. It's an entirely unpretentious, linear action adventure about gradually visiting everywhere fighting monsters, helping people out, and sometimes making yourself a better bow or pair of shoes. It's easy enough to border on, and perhaps cross into kid-friendly (I am informed by spies that some children are different to other children, a possibly mendacious ploy by my enemies), but it controls well, looks and sounds soft and inviting, and it's all so low pressure and comfortable that you'll while away a lot longer than you expected. A fun diversion.
When you gather plants the game makes a delightful popping sound. If you don't find yourself trying to perfectly synchronise with your own popping noises, you are definitely no fun.
Walden, a game
£14.49 / 15.99€ / $18.99
I know everything, of course, but sometimes for a challenge I intentionally forget something so I get to enjoy learning it again. This is why I know so little about Henry David Thoreau.
Walden, a game is an interesting prospect. It's an adaptation, or interpretation and/or exploration of Thoreau's 1854 book, Walden, not a game. I only really know it through this game, which would qualify as a walking simulator with very light survival elements. You live in your small frame of a shack in the woods of Massachusetts, a short walk from both a town and the home of your friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. This is not a hardcore man vs nature deal, nor was this life that Thoreau lived and chronicled in the book. It was an experiment. An artistic, philosophical, and personal effort to examine and live mostly alone in a natural environment, picking berries and fishing for sustenance, growing beans for a little trade, and above all taking inspiration from the countless mostly living things around you.
Thoreau himself advocated this kind of experience, but the impression I get is not one of bitterness or self-righteousness. He's not the sour, possibly cannibalistic hermit lurking in isolation (hello!), but someone who found real, profound value in this life. That comes across strongly in the game, despite the obvious contradiction of turning such an experience into a form of entertainment made possible only by a near opposite way of life. It's a slow, peaceful game of understated prettiness, and even rather educational if you know as little about plants as most of us do.
£5.99 / 5.99€ / $6.99
Aaaaaah oh god oh god oh god IT IS THE COMPLETE OPPOSITE OF THE THEME
Terrawurm is exactly the kind of game I'd play with a close friend, taking turns to confidently rib each other's rubbish performance before immediately panicking into an even more shambolic display. You steer a little moon buggy around a squarea that remains the same size and yet feels like it gets constantly smaller. Gather up the randomly appearing gems for points, pick up occasional power ups to hasten your score along or blast obstacles apart, and, oh yeah, and IT'S RIGHT BEHIND YOU THE WORM IT'S RIGHT THERE AAHHH
There is a sandworm constantly chasing you. It never stops. It does not tire. It knows no mercy. It will consume you. And you think you'll be fine as long as you twist and turn a lot, yeah? It does the opposite of that. You'll do wide, methodical circuits of the map to maximise your distance? No you won't. You'll be tempted to turn just for a second to nab those gems. And it'll work, too, until it suddenly doesn't.
My only real complaint is that there deserves to be more of it. Some more maps, even if it's just cosmetic. A few tweaks to the formula. But it's a good wee laugh and far more harrowing than it ought to be. I may have wailed "nooo idun like it idun like iiiit" like an irksome toddler whenever the worm got too close. Scurrilous rumours.
£6.99 / 7.99€ / $9.99
Turn based strategy in which you "be" a plague doctor, as in the beaky medieval types, who's running about a city full of zombies and doomed civilians, trying to uncover a sinister plot and put an end to the disease without ever sneezing. Levels are randomly generated, although the story takes the same basic course and levels generally boil down to getting to a specific room. Movement is more like a board game than a heavy action point setup, and it is at heart a very straightforward game. You guide your crow-looking weirdoes through levels, emptying cabinets of medicines, recipes, and ingredients for the same, avoiding the semi-predictable movement of the infected and sinister bandits (who can be pitted against each other if you're savvy). Your 'weapons' are non-lethal - you're doctors, not murderers - so mostly you'll be cracking people in the face with bludgeons or injecting them with temporary palliatives. If you're lucky you'll get to cure some, but this is up to you - there's no tangible reward for saving anyone rather than focusing on the bigger picture.
It works for several reasons. The brisk pace and minimal fiddling about are extremely welcome in an often awkward genre, and despite the setting and subject matter, it's remarkably un-grim. The near monochrome line drawings and decent music combined with the novel premise provide an oddly relaxing, effortless bit of tiley tactical puzzling. It won't set the world on fire, but it'll warm your fingers for a while.
£3.99 / 3.99€ / $4.99
Pleasant pleasant pleasant, oooh, everything's so bloody pleasant today. But I mean, Cherry Creek is. It just is. You know how Minesweeper gently but clearly pressures you to be as fast as possible? Cherry Creek could have done the same, but somehow despite having both a timer and a click counter on screen, any invitation to chase higher scores feels exactly like that. An optional challenge. Even upping the difficulty compares better to choosing a jigsaw puzzle with more pieces. It's about how stuck in you'd like to get, more than about having anything to prove.
So what do you do? You rotate tiles so that the little canals they contain direct water from a source to feed all the cherry trees on the map. That's it. Stroll through any game shop and you'll knock over a tile puzzle if you so much as blink too hard, and yet here I am wanting to play more and bigger Cherry Creek maps simply because it feels cozy. You can stick with lots of little maps or go for giant ones, or anything in between. I'm not really one to lean on this kind of mildly therapeutic game, but it's pretty, it sounds lovely, and it invites where others demand.
Lovers of Aether
Free / 'Free' but in Slovak/ Etc, etc
Many, many visual novels do a thing that is annoying and creepy. They fill their game with backgrounds that are supposed to be busy places full of people, but the artwork depicts them totally, eerily deserted. They're always absolutely spotlessly clean, too, as though everyone in the story is living in an architectural model, six or seven survivors of some terrible, alien catastrophe huddled together in their almost-always-a-school, too traumatised and invested in total denial to drop the pretense.
Anyway, Lovers of Aether doesn't do that. The classroom is full of people, instead of unnaturally perfect empty chairs facing a teacher whose body even now exists only as a light film of dust. Those people are pubescified versions of the characters from Rivals of Aether, a fighting game I confess I've yet to play, and which this game openly exists to promote (Tangent - making a genre twisted version of a game to advertise the original is an investment that seems to be slowly gaining in popularity. What say you, readers? I am very curious). My interest is piqued, so Lovers obviously did its job. It's an entertaining game in its own right. It condenses the quite common "generic, mildly vacuous player character must unlock A Woman" formula, makes everyone a romantic option, and gives everyone including the player a lot more personality and charm. You have a day to find a date for the school prom, and this is treated with the arch self-awareness that it deserves.
You choose which characters to focus your attention on, how best to speak to them, and sometimes play a little quiz or minigame - one scene had me playing a computer game while my closet emo classmate bared his soul to me in detail that was both poetic and knowingly silly. There were several litera-lols during its short run time, and the insufferable characters are too cartoonishly so to be genuinely repulsive.
Oh and when they put you down, ho boy do they make you love it.
£11.39 / 12.49€ / $14.99, Early access
There are two kinds of EVE Online player. Actually there are about thirty kinds, but shut up Sin. The main two will be either baffled and repulsed by the prospect of EVE Online without other players - why bother???? - or delighted at the thought of doing their thing in space without some multiboxing expletive-deleted pointlessly kicking over their sandcastles.
Astrox is very much aiming to do a lot of what EVE does, but in single player. Exactly how long your interest will be prolonged without any other humans causing trouble or providing company or competition is hard to say in such a limited time - this is very much the kind of economic simulation to chew up entire evenings. You pilot a spaceship (in much more of a strategic map sense than a dogfighting sense) about a semi-colonised region of space, taking mercenary jobs and trading or mining contracts and/or pootling about poking at things as you like. Success brings money, resources and XP to invest in training courses so you can access better or more varied equipment, and to be completely honest I can't tell you a great deal about it at this point. I enjoyed it and am curious to see what shape it will take further in to its early access phase. I'm particularly interested in the many factions it boasts, especially as the text suggests they're divided more by behaviour and ideology than statistics. The flavour text in the station-only news bulletins is nicely detailed, too.
The UI is in need of some tidying up or clarifying, but this is near inevitable for such a complex game before a full release. If there's one thing I'm sore about, it's that I couldn't equip a salvaging module, but nor could I tell where to go in order to find out. Hmph.
£34.99 / 39.99€ / $39.99
I have this proto-theory that racing games, particularly 3D ones, are a lot harder to make well than they appear. The tracks, the physics, the audiovisual feedback, the HUD, and of course the AI - all of them have to be absolutely nailed, or you just lose everything. You can get away with some things being a bit off in most genres, but in a racer even a slight imbalance can undermine everything.
Xenon Racer is a strong entry, despite some menu interface niggles, and a damage system that needs a rethink - some sort of pit stop option, or simply a self destruct button to force a tactical reset, say. It lives well within the arcade wing of the racing mansion, though it does not join in when the other arcade racers are throwing eggs at the simulation wing nerds. You unlock cars and their upgrades / designs by placing in career or one-off races. You're encouraged to drift heavily, charging up your NAWWWS and blasting past AI suckers, but tooling up your car for a more calculated approach is viable. Bashing or scraping things can take huge chunks off your health, but wrecks only cost you in time.
It's a solid enough racer. It looked pretty swish even with some of my usual options switched off, particularly the night races, and the music pushes the pace well. It did, however, keep forcing me to race on some tracks with some ugly green and white car instead of my sexy purple one. Purple is faster. I have done sums.
Pick of the week: I fell for Walden, a game a little bit.
As adaptations go, it's entirely unlikely, but it works. Take it as a tiny world to wander and contemplate, sometimes tending to your garden, sometimes discussing your thoughts with your friend, once in a while wandering nearer to town and listening to church bells and cattle, pondering whatever your surroundings suggest.
Its day and night cycle could do with more stretching, and the gamey aspect of farming beans and tidying for loose change is a little too much of an imposition. But this too is perhaps part of the point. An impressive adaptation of a book, possibly the best I've seen outside 80 Days.
Oh, also Thoreau was by all accounts a pretty safe person in general. If I didn't have a literal box full of reading to do already I'd get right on that.