Steam Next Fest Bests

PC, Switch

Sorry, as ever, that this is so late. I do really wish they’d not launch these Next Fests after work on a Friday, then end them before the following week is over. But here, with a couple of days left to grab them, are my tips of demos to check out from the current Steam festival.

Storyteller

This idea has been tried a few times, and often seems to get stuck in development hell. So I’m really pleased to see Storyteller looking so final. The idea is, you have a panel of empty frames, and a selection of scenarios and characters to drop into them. The goal is to create a narrative that matches the level’s title, by placing situations and people in the right places, in the right order.

The joy here is when changing a certain element mid-story, say having a different character die, changes all the following frames as the story plays out appropriately differently. It has that Scribblenauts moment of emergent magic, as it all suddenly comes together, and the princess marries the prince, or as is far more likely in this surprisingly macabre, game, everyone poisons themselves in misery.

With a real Shakespearean tragedy vibe, the themes in the eleven levels available here aren’t the fairytale joy you might expect, but tales of betrayal, murder and remorse. Which, let’s be honest, makes it all much more fun.

Release: TBD (uh-oh)

Airhead

With impressive publishing chops coming from THQ Nordic, there’s little chance this will remain very buried, but just now it was something I’d not spotted before. Imagine if Limbo had had a better childhood – then you get Airhead. It’s an exploration-platformer of that ilk, but with colours in it! Colours! Also you play a body who eventually picks up an inflatable head, and must keep it inflated from various gas tanks while negotiating the levels.

Which is bonkers. But pleasingly so, with some lovely animations and a desperately needed brighter approach to a genre that is so tiresomely grimdark.

Release: some time this year

Peglin

How has it taken this long for anyone to make Peglin?! Thank goodness for Red Nexus Games, who have finally stepped in and rebalanced the universe. It’s Peggle, but as an RPG. Yessssssssss.

Using pixel graphics, because that’s the law now, it presents as a very familiar Peggle format, only with your character on a horizontal bar at the top, faced by ever-encroaching enemies. Good peg-hitting accrues attack points, which can then be boosted by bonuses, criticals, and an ever-growing arsenal of ball types. The idea is to kill all the bads for each level, before they get all up in your face and hit you to death.

There’s a meaty amount to this demo, with a great deal of what scientists call replayability. I’m a bit concerned for their chances of avoiding the Sauron-like eye of EA, given just how much the sound effects sound like those from Peggle itself – they may well want to change that rather sharpish. But this looks like a treat.

Release: Some point in 2021

Undungeon

I’m a little bit afraid of Undungeon. It looks like it might be a bit too good. Is that weird? It’s an Action-RPG, but with such complexity. Combat has a Soulsish edge to it, with a stamina bar limiting your frenzied whacking, while the whole thing is presented in that front-on 2D fine pixel art that I find endlessly beautiful. Then on top of that, it appears to have taken a healthy chunk of Disco Elysium in how it presents its dialogues, with converation choices played out in a vertical panel on the right.

I’ve had a play with the demo, and all looks great, but honestly there seems to be way too much to learn for a game that’s going to end just as I’ve got it. But I cannot wait for the full release, because this looks astonishing. And oh, wow, the music. The music.

Release: Later this year

Please, Touch The Artwork

I realise this isn’t probably the place, but quick anecdote: The first time I went to the Tate Modern, my primary feeling as I explored was one of being pissed off at the pretention of ropes, screens and “DO NOT TOUCH” signs. I hate this preservation rubbish. Nothing is so important that it needs to last forever. Then in one room there was this huge pile of boiled sweets in golden wrappers, lit from below so they glowed like cartoon treasure. And a sign encouraged people to touch it, to take a sweet, and enjoy it. It was a piece in tribute of another artist who had died, and it went from “Pile of sweets is art these days is it?” to something so meaningful and touching. Literally touching. Which is all to say, I’m predisposed to like this one based on the title.

Further, before you start the game proper, you have a chat with the museum’s guard, and in the conversation options you can asking him “What is an exhibition?” and “What is a museum?”, AND HE JUST ANSWERS. No snark, no demeaning the idea that someone might not already know something, just a plain English explanation. I want to hug this game.

Next: it asks you how tired you are to decide your difficulty level. Heck, I’m not going to even explain what this game is now, because if all that doesn’t make you want to play it, you don’t deserve it.

Release: This autumn

Supplice

I’m a sucker for any classic-style FPS, but Supplice really is something stunning. It’s a 2.5D shooter, with the feel of Doom/Heretic, yet with so much more detail going into enemy behaviours, level design, and the necessary tactics required.

I especially love its approach to verticality – i.e. the way it has you go up and down. Instead of a jump button, you’re restricted to finding pathways that lead you to higher areas. It means often the secrets are right in front of your eyes, it’s how to reach them that requires the work. And as you’d hope for a classic shooter, it’s packed with secrets. In fact, it’s packed with so much, these two levels in the demo absolutely enormous once you start pulling at all the threads.

This is looking fantastic, right up there with Ion Fury, and I can’t wait for more.

Release: 2022

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Lil Gator Game

Well this is guaranteed to go huge in the whole wholesome games world, because it is just utterly lovely. You play as Lil Gator, a young alligator on vacation, right on the cusp of teenagehood, grasping the last vestiges of playful childhood. But your big sister is being far too grown up, and refusing to play. So you gather the help of your friends to recreate a favourite childhood video game – you know, the one with the boy with the floppy green hat, sword, and shield.

Wonderfully, this demo is a bespoke version of the game, in which your gang creates a demo of their own game to try to entice the sister to play. It’s packed with activities, mini-quests, and a bunch of upgrades that let you end up climbing and gliding about the island. Oh, and all the enemies are made of cardboard.

It’s absolutely beautiful, and next year needs to hurry up so I can play some more. You can support its Patreon here.

Release: 2022

After Shadows

After Shadows is an absolutely astonishing-looking game, in which you play a small girl, attempting to rescue a boy from a cage, exporing the 2D level, while avoiding a really rather terrifying monster. It can emerge from the ground anywhere it hears noise, so you need to avoid the little traps and beasties that will alert it.

It’s absolutely essential to play the tutorial, despite its broken English, because very little is self-explanatory if you dive right in. The tutorial teaches you the aims (activate the crystals), the way to… smell ropes (?), and about the gifts and curses you receive on successes and failures.

The art and animations in this are stellar, and well worth checking out. Sadly there aren’t any gamepad controls yet, and it doesn’t feel very comfortable on the keyboard. But I’m convinced this is one to keep a close eye on.

Release: Autumn this year

Born Punk

I’m so pleased by how many decent-looking point-and-click adventures seem to be on the horizon. Born Punk is definitely one of them, with a really hooky idea that had me wishlist this immediately. In the demo you see a businesswoman working in her office, when she’s possessed by some sort of alien creature. When you take control, you play as her, but you perceive the world as the entity, the actual woman only able to interject with annoyed observations or angry demands. It’s such a smart idea, having two protagonists in one body.

When you first look around the office, every single one of the many interactive objects is perceived as by an alien, described by its shape and colour. It’s not until you find a way to have her learn the basics of human knowledge that she can usefully know what any object is, or interact with it. Which is brilliant!

The full game will apparently have three different people possessed, all playable, which sounds fantastic. Oh, and it includes terrorist cats.

Release: “In the near future”

Grapple Dog

Oh wow! Grapple Dog is a platform game that feels like it should have always been a fondly remembered classic on the Mega Drive. It’s just feels so refined, cosy and fantastically fun to play with. You are a little doggy, you have a grapple hook that connects onto blue blocks, and you’ve got a big world full of evil robots and cute animals to explore.

It’s utterly gorgeous, how you remember classic 90s platformers looking, rather than how they actually did, with exactly the right funk-o-pop music to match. Controls are smooth, the grappling instinctive and great fun, and the levels are packed with secrets to discover.

But most of all, it’s just so happy! So upbeat! A dozen cartoony platformers come out a week on Steam, but most miss the mark by a wide margin. Grapple Dog is currently looking very likely to just nail it when it eventually appears. Meanwhile, this is a sizeable demo to have a lot of fun with.

Release: “Coming soon”

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5 Comments

  1. After Shadows found my 360 gamepad instantly, although on some of the menus it’s got me pushing a pointer around with the left stick. I’m really liking it though, it reminds me a lot of Icepick Lodge’s Knock-Knock — but more platformy and less the Icepick je ne sais quoi.

  2. Thanks for the Supplice pick: it’s bringing up long-thought-forgotten Doom 2 memories and I love the speed of it, both player and some of the enemies – the imps that suddenly rush at you are fab.

    I’ve really enjoyed Strange Horticulture — light puzzle / detective / narrative thing set in a new-slightly-weird lake district. It’s getting quite a bit of press so John might have not felt the need to mention it. But in case anyone has missed it: check it out!

    Storyteller is lovely – how will it scale to a ‘full’ game though? It might fit better in a model like a web comic or something with a new story every week.

  3. I’ve immensely enjoyed both “Grapple Dog” and “Gator Boy”, but the absolute best demo of the fest is no doubt “The Ballad of Bonky”.

    It just oozes with personality and doesn so much with so little. I don’t even want to try to describe it, but I think that literally everyone shuold play it.

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