Ooh I love Next Fest. Steam’s semi-regular festival of demos for upcoming games does two crucial things: 1) it makes demos a core part of promoting games once again, an art that was grossly abandoned by the big publishers a few years back, and 2) it puts unknown indie games right in people’s faces.
It’s the exact opposite of Steam’s far-too-regular massive sales, that bury and hide anything obscure to a ridiculous degree. So hooray!
As ever, it’s taken me too much of the Fest itself to play through enough demos to highlight for you my favourites. And indeed these are my favourites of the frighteningly small sliver of the games I wanted to look at that I’ve been able to get to. There are, as you may have noticed, too many games. However, rather joyfully this Fest started on a Monday, not a Friday, meaning there’s a weekend after anyone’s had a chance to bring you their highlights! I really hope this is a schedule Valve sticks to in future.
There are overlaps, but to broaden your options, it’s worth looking at other’s selections, like those of RPS, PC Gamer, and Christian Donlans’s write-ups on Eurogamer. Below are those I’ve discovered that are definitely worth your attention, and a Wishlist click.
Lost In Play
Oh my word. I am absolutely gobsmacked. This might be one of the most beautifully animated cartoon games ever made. It’s Cuphead without those creepy racist undertones, adding a more subtle CRT-effect on everything to evoke a later era. And then, rather importantly, it’s a gorgeous puzzle adventure within.
I’m so blown away by how good this was. I laughed with delight, genuine delight, at the animations of the bonkers frogs, the amazing facial expressions, and yes, the cat licking its bum. The puzzles are pretty simple, at least in the early stage shown in this demo, but a pleasure to complete, and there’s a hint system even if they weren’t.
This is immediately the game I’m most looking forward to in 2022.
- Happy Juice Games / Joystick Ventures
- Windows, Mac
- Summer 2022
My first thought on seeing McPixel 3 in the Next Fest selection was, “Wait, there was a McPixel 2?!” There was not. This means I’m both relieved that I didn’t somehow miss a follow-up to one of my favourite games from 2012, and disappointed that there isn’t already a whole other game to play. Either way, this demo is hilarious, childish, and doesn’t make the mistake of breaking what didn’t need fixing.
In a series of vignettes, your job is to “SAVE THE DAY”, which in practice means clicking on things at random to see what McPixel will kick, break or wee on, until you stumble on the arbitrary solution. This would usually be a criticism of a game, but here it’s just an opportunity to keep finding more funny stuff. The demo is packed with gags, and reasons to replay each scene many, many times.
- Sos Sosowski / Devolver
- PC, Mac, Linux
It’s not until you play an adventure with decent writing that you realise how boilerplate most of the genre is. Relying on the story, the jokes, the puzzles or whatever it may be, the writing itself often becomes mercenary or perfunctory. So it’s a pleasure that, for as often as it gets grimacingly purple, the prose in Blood Nova is ambitious. This is about a reluctant space Princess who is due to become Empress, but moments before her ceremony finds that a biological attack has killed everyone aboard the “Lighthouse” on which she and her friend Kel were visiting.
What follows is some pretty standard point-and-clicking inventory puzzle business, but in a very satisfying way (bar one ridiculous puzzle, and let me just help you out: you put the unsticky thing on the bubble), set in a very neatly established science fiction setting.
There’s a good chunk of game in this demo, which will hopefully find its way to becoming a full game, despite a somewhat lacklustre performance on Kickstarter (remember that?) last month. The good news is, however, there’s still time for developers Cosmic Void to not abandon all sense and actually stick with calling their central character “Princess Love”. No. NO. Absolutely not.
- Cosmic Void
- Late 2022
It is my fervent belief that all new genres lead back to adventure games. See hidden object, escape room, and of course, visual novel. Fix Fox is not a VN, but you can see the evolutionary path from that to this top-down action-cum-adventure. You play a fox called Vix, a pretty useless space mechanic, mothered by a toolbelt who’s been with you since you were a child. The game is about running around its surprisingly large world, fixing stuff you find, gathering tools to do so, and doing a great deal of chatting.
It’s all just fantastic, and this demo stretches on for hours, to the point where I began wondering if I accidentally had the entire game. I only stopped playing when I hit a bug that meant my ship refused to take off, stating I needed an item that was already on board, but I’d happily have kept going all day, despite entirely failing to play the rest of the demos I have lined up.
It desperately needs to speed up the appearance of dialogue windows – the gaps between them can be so long that I kept thinking I’d been given back control, a dozen times in a row, which was infuriating. But once you’re dashing about, finding loot, fixing machines, and having stickers stolen by pirates, it’s a lovely thing.
- Rendlike / Joystick Ventures
- Windows, Mac
- 31 Mar, 2022
Bookworm Adventures rip-offs are nothing new, but they’re always welcome. 2015’s Letter Quest was the most blatant, perhaps until Writer’s Block comes out this year. All power to them, especially give that EA has gone to such extraordinary lengths to make the Bookworm Adventures series impossible to buy or play.
Writer’s Block, alongside having a very clever name, doesn’t meddle with the formula much. There’s a Slay The Spire-style multiple-choice path down which you venture in a quest, offering slightly different results and bonuses, but the core game is the same: spell out words to hit enemies. And as such, it’s lots of fun!
This is an alpha demo, and so there’s some expected jankiness. It definitely needs to add a better sense of impact, some more sound effects, and I really felt the absence of Bookworm‘s Lex cheering me on. This game’s Font is a cute character, but currently mute. Still, this looks promising.
- Tic Toc Games
- Windows, Mac
- Aug 2022
Space Wreck feels like a ’90s RPG that fell through a wormhole, something that surely must have existed for years. With its combination of a DOS-style miniscreen as its UI, and isometric scratchy art, it evokes the glory years of the genre, and then seemingly delivers on them.
There are three characters to choose from at the start, which will heavily influence how you play (to the degree of needing to rely on combat, all the way to being mostly incapable of it), which of course belies a game that is approachable in many different ways.
The demo contains a significant chunk of the game, and let me get pretty deeply embroiled in its seemingly simple tale of a ship captain attempting to refuel his ship at a space station. I had soon hacked the security terminals and turned the robotic guards to my side, and was exploring rooms I shouldn’t oughta by crawling the the vents. All of which I could have ignored. This has enormous potential, and I can’t wait for this to enter a late-stage Early Access. Sadly, they’ve yet to say when.
- Pahris Entertainment SIA
My secret is I love playing those ludicrously overwrought, hyperbolic hidden object adventures on my phone. You know the ones, with a lady who is seeking a cure for her petrified prince in an underwater city, primarily by finding the hourglass hidden in a mess of items on a table. Lunar Axe is that genre, but without all the embarrassment.
Using really lovely hand-drawn art, it makes for a very different experience. Couple that with a story based on Brazilian folklore, and a spooky atmosphere, and it has all the properties that has me shamefully tapping away in the dead of night, but in a far more respectable way.
The short demo has you solve a bunch of puzzles, which are mostly unlocking doors, as well as one hidden object screen, but also a ton of very well written story. It desperately needs some better signposting, especially for finding the obfuscated exits in any screen, but I’m delighted to see someone take the framework of a maligned genre and make it feel personal.
- Ops Game Studio
- Early 2022
Ctrl Alt Ego
This is such a refreshingly original puzzle game. You play an apparently partially human ego, detached from any corporeal form, but able to possess all manner of devices strewn about what appears to be some sort of spaceship. Using this ability, you switch between computers, moveable robots, security doors, sentinels, cameras… It’s this ability to jump from object to object that allows you not only to solve puzzles, but also to experience a fun, deeply meta narrative.
There’s some excellent voice acting in here (no, not the stuff in the awful trailer, thank goodness), as a computer explains your predicament in deliberately unhelpful ways, alongside some lovely writing in the TAB menus for every machine you control (the meta nature extends to “TAB” and “CTRL” being key components, along with describing everything as “90s-style mouse controls” and so on. (Except it keeps saying “90’s”, for which it should clearly be set on fire.)
I’m not a fan of the art at all, but that almost immediately became unimportant in a game that’s primarily about its mechanics. There’s a good chunk of game in this demo, that suggests a really interesting game to come later this year.
- July 2022
A Little To The Left
I am very much not the target audience for A Little To The Left, but I know so many people who will be delighted by it. This is a game about tidying up, putting things in order, getting everything straight. I can’t stand all that. A painting hanging to a slight angle genuinely brings me pleasure, and not the brain-itch that sees my wife Laura losing her mind when I do it on purpose. For context, this is one of my favourite videos on the internet, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it brings me cathartic pleasure to watch.
What I’m saying is I’m a monster. If you’ve played the demo, I’m on the cat’s side.
Honestly, while solving the screens for the beautifully animated A Little To The Left, I kept thinking, “But I don’t want the pencils in size order,” or, “Who cares if that stuff is down the side of the tray in the drawer?” These are the reasons Laura stares out the window and wonders what could have been.
(It’s also worth saying that this game has almost nothing to do with OCD, and it’d be very frustrating to see that life-changing mental health condition used as a joke when discussing this game. People who say “I’m a little bit OCD!” because they like being fastidious are as offensive as if they said, “I’m a little bit depressive!” because they’re feeling sad about a thing.)
Um, which is all to say, this is great! It’s a lovely little demo, for a game I feel certain will bring so many people utter joy as they restore order.
- Max Inferno / Secret Mode
- PC, Mac
- August 2022
A nice bunch, thank you John!
Not every monster wears a cape made of dalmations.
I’m surprised Gibbon doesn’t get more attention. It has excellent flow. Creators promised to keep the demo up for a little longer, so there’s still time to try it.