The Best Of June’s Steam Next Fest

Check out that SEO headline. I’ve no idea if these are the best. I haven’t played all fourteenty billion demos, so couldn’t possibly tell you that. But I do know these are really interesting, and well worth adding to your Steam wishlist. Let’s go:

Master Key

Developer: Achromi

Out: TBA

This is one heck of a demo. I began to wonder if I’d accidentally gotten hold of the whole game. Then by the time I did reach the end of this superbly good monochrome-Zelda-me-do, I was heartbroken I couldn’t play any more.

This very closely follows the 2D Zelda mold, only without any dialogue, instead opting for very occasional pictograms, and just leaves you to it. You play as a little fox, who is just exploring. With that mindset, you’re free to look for dungeons, gather currency, buy new stuff, and repeat. And my goodness, it just works in this purest form. All in 284×160 pixels, that blows up to fullscreen perfectly. Grab hold of this one.

Hellscreen

Developer: Uk_resistant

Out: October 2022

This is soooooo epic! A chunky, rapid FPS, but with a rear-view mirror. You play in glitchy, scratchy alt-world renditions of Quake 3 arenas, collecting soul shards and gathering keys to open new levels, while frantically shotting at spiders made of mirrors. Yes yes yes. Also, right click fires backward, viewed through your mirror at the top of the screen.

This is like a screech in gaming form, absolutely frantic and manic. It has such a good understanding of how forward momentum is interesting in FPS games, not by trying to tie it to some half-arsed parkour system, but just making your guns do double-damage when you’re moving forward. I’d love to see the full game make more of the mirror, not just forcing its use in some specific areas, but having more enemies spawn behind you. I want to be playing this like a kid on a driving test, frantically checking my mirror in case of danger.

This is coming out in Early Access, but fear not: it’s in chapter form. So Chapter 1 should be here by the end of this year, then the other two chapters will follow.

Cursed To Golf

Developer: Chuhai Labs

Out: TBA

You’re on the final hole of the big golfing championship, about to seal your position as the greatest golfer of all time, when – KABOOM – you’re struck by lightning and killed dead. Which, of course, turns you into a ghost who finds himself in golfing purgatory, until you can putt your way back to life.

Which is an excellent way to start what is essentially a golfing platformer roguelite? That’ll likely do. Yes, you already know about this one thanks to some high-profile Nintendoing, but I just wanted to play some.

Goodness me, the tutorial is agonisingly slow, but if you hold down Space you can zip through the endless waffle and do the self-evident shots. However, make sure to pay attention when it starts explaining how the Ace Cards work.

After that, there’s a really generous amount of this completely daft golf platformer, with some of the loveliest animations I’ve seen in a long while.

Selaco

Developer: Altered Orbit Studios

Out: 2255

Have you ever liked a game so much you want to grab people by the sides of their head and roar into their eyes that they should play it? Er, no, nor me. But oh my goodness, play Seleco.

This exists on the exact midpoint between Half-Life and Deus Ex, although names its inspiration as F.E.A.R, Quake and Doom. It’s an FPS, with enormously fast movement and superb enemies, but set in an underground facility that’s richly detailed, both with found notes and environmental storytelling.

This sizeable demo really shows off its excellent gunplay, the amazingly destructible locations, secret passages, and zippy exploration, making this the game I’m most excited about right now.

Unwording

Developer: Frostwood Interactive

Out: September 22

Beginning with a crayon-like handdrawn style, Unwording is initially a very sad game about a man with depression, reinterpreting the world in the wost possible way. By looking at certain objects, he sees descriptive words made of blocks. You rearrange those blocks into a new word or phrase that is, well, darker.

There’s the possibility of hope here, though, in the well-trodden form of a bright yellow bird. A very poopy bird.

So yes, be afore-warned about a bleak depiction of depression, but presented with gorgeous animation, and a novel puzzle style that seemed far too hard at first glance, but then each and every time came easily together for me. (I’d avoid using the “Hint”, by the way, it broke a puzzle for me rather than helped.) I think, as a longer game, this will be a much more positive experience. As a demo it’s rather full of despair, but has me very intrigued to play more.

One Dreamer

Developer: F2House

Out: TBA

This demo of a game about an indie developer struggling to finish a game appears to be about two years old. I’m just saying. It is, however, really wonderful and well worth a look. If my loving it can be further inspiration to F2House to get it finished, then that love is provided.

Frank has lost his way in his indie project, and from what I can discern in this demo, we’re jumping about through time, perhaps even in and out of fantasy, as we explore moments of motivation and inspiration, or even defeat, where Frank is able to edit the code of objects in the world to change outcomes.

I’m usually pretty sceptical about coding games. I don’t want to read novels about how books are bound, nor do I want to watch movies about editing software. This idea that because coding is so fascinating to a developer that it must also be to their audience is… misguided. However, what One Dreamer does differently is use pseudocode, a sort of over-simplified C#, so the player can make logical deductions based on what’s immediately apparent, rather than need to go on a programming course first.

So while editing the world’s code to solve puzzles isn’t a new idea, I love how uncomplicated it is here, alongside a game that’s beautifully presented, a flickering confusion of glitches and unreality. It’s also pretty touching in places, which is impressive for a twenty-minute demo!

Brok The InvestiGator

Developer: COWCAT

Out: 2022

In many ways, Brok The InvestiGator is a very traditional cartoon point-and-click adventure, and very welcome at that. Lovely animation, excellent voice acting, inventory puzzles, underplayed jokes, and a really interesting world of animals and robots. In one other way, it’s untraditional, in that Brok likes to use his fists, in fighty action sequences.

Anyone who survived the late 90s will remember that every attempt to add action to PnC adventures ended in grim failure. It seems too long has passed and lessons are forgotten, because right now the fighting is leagues poorer than the excellent adventuring in this demo. This is in a large part thanks to some incredibly confusing and clumsy controls, asking you to have about three hands that bend in on themselves. However, I think this can be quite easily fixed, if streamlined and made far less involved. Heck, people managed brawlers on two-button gamepads for a generation, and there’s no reason for this to be more involved.

Everything but the fighting here is brill, though, and well worth a look.

Lone Ruin

Developer: Cuddle Monster Games

Out: TBA

Lone Ruin makes the extremely generous decision to release an entire game mode as a free demo, and I think it’s a very smart move. This twin-stick roguelite is an arcade frenzy of spellcasting and dashing, as you attempt to survive against ever-growing numbers of enemies.

Presumably the finished game will have some manner of more story-driven extended campaign, but the demo offers a survival mode with three difficulty levels, and a shared highscore table to motivate. Honestly, just this could have been a released product, albeit a slim one.

It’s compelling to play because of its spell-based nature, meaning it’s a game about timing attacks rather than just blasting out ammo. Everything is on a cool-down, even if that’s under a second, and so as you gain and level up spells, you need to mobilise them with fast-thinking tactical aplomb. Learning the three different starting characters, and then having favourite routes through the randomised levelling options, gives this a depth that its small arena belies. Also, it’s really damned fun, and hard to stop playing.

Vulnerable

Developer: Breakpoint Games

Out: 2023

I do love me an Ace Attorney-like, and Vulnerable delivers on that, but in a strikingly different setting. This is a visual novel detective-ish game, set in a dystopian future, beginning in the remains of a ruined Paris. We play Sayaka, who arrives at a building that takes care of refugees, with the aim to get them to a safe location on the moon, before transfering them to the corporate-run, but far safer, Mars colonies.

You move Sayaka left and right in 2D levels, interacting with characters and objects, and then clicking through the conversations. But once you reach the point of making a judgement about something you’re investigating (in the demo, a stolen necklace), it gets all Phoenix Wrighty as you’re challenging statements to find lies, and eventually prove guilt.

And then things go bonkers, as Sayaka is revealed to be able to enter people’s subconsciousnesses to do “emergency therapy”!

Except, it’s not bonkers. It sounds like the most cartoonish Ace Attorney thing ever, but in fact it plays out – in the demo at least – as genuine, thoughtful, even quite moving therapy. Sayaka challenges a present response to past trauma in a gentle but powerful way, that transcends the usual pitiful attempts by too many games to be “psychological”, and suggests to me a deep understanding of the subject. So much so that I kept making mistakes because I was reaching for pat responses, for “nice” replies, that you would always assume were “correct” in a video game. Extraordinary stuff.

There’s a big issue here, and that’s the translation. The game is French, and the French voiceovers are great, but the English written translation is incredibly over-literal and means you have to mentally fix everything as you read. Things like, “Thank you already a lot,” are easily understood, but very frequent lines like, “Do you think I would present you so easily a robbed necklace?” breaks the flow of fast reading. Then there are bits like, “It is where we stock our automotisms for instance,” that are mystifying. The whole thing needs another pass by a native English speaker, which of course may already be the plan: the game isn’t due out until next year. Or, you know, I could learn French.

I’m so impressed by this. At first I thought it was a little over-simplistic, just the VN formula of clicking to make the story go by, but as soon as I was interrogating I was in. And then the therapy stuff has blown me away. I cannot wait to play more.

Dreams In The Witch House

Developer: Atom Brain Games

Out: 2022

Built in AGS, and drawn in classic early 90s pixel art, Dreams In The Witch House sure looks like it’s going to be a classic point-and-click adventure. But as you play, you realise it’s a lot more involved: time passes at its own (reasonable) pace, events occur at certain times on certain days, and you’re really free to engage with it all at your whim.

Walter has moved into his first independent lodgings, to study at university in 1929. There’s something creepy about the place, and another resident is very concerned about the room in which you’re living.

His thesis is attempting to draw connections between modern physics and ancient occult practices, and he needs to study both. To do this, you need to turn up to lectures on the right days, study text books borrowed from the library in your spare time, and attend public events learned about in the daily paper. And doing all of this, as well as feeding yourself and keeping yourself warm, costs money. To get money, you can do odd jobs for your landlady, but of course at the expense of having time to do anything else significant that day.

This all becomes a juggle of time management, but presented like a classic adventure game, with characters to chat with, inventory items, puzzles, the lot. It’s a fascinating combination, and my fear that the time pressures would make me feel too anxious to enjoy it were not realised in the demo. It’s all at an unenergetic pace. My only concern at this point is how time jumps ahead in chunks (Dawn, Morning, etc), with no visible clock to tell you when the next is arriving – I think that’ll be pretty vital. Otherwise, this is very intriguing.

5 Comments

  1. Hi, developer of BROK here!
    I really don’t understand your issues with controls . Can you detail, please? The game uses standard controls with gamepad for a beat’em up.

    The Prologue is currently 97% positive with more than 250 reviews and you’re the first person to mention an issue with controls. How did you play? With mouse, keyboard or a gamepad?

    Thanks for the mention!

  2. Definitely sharing your enthusiasm for Selaco. Though I plan to wait until the full release to actually play it.

  3. Selaco was cool, thanks for that tip! Have you looked at the Dome Keeper demo? It’s a cool mix of Terraria/Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime/Missile Command. I love the simplistic yet atmospheric vibe of the monsters and apocalyptic top world too.

  4. I tried out a game called STRANGER, it was super fun, it deserves to be on this list. Student dev too I think

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