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Summer Game Fest Demo event: Here are the 15 games I tried.

Back in July, Xbox held a week-long event showcasing some upcoming games through demos and I tried 15 of them. Then the event ended, but I still wanted to talk about them, so I wrote a quick summary of what each game is and what I though about the demos. Hopefully if you missed the demos, you’ll find something here to keep an eye on; please note that some of these demos have been removed from the store (they were not meant to stay beyond the event), but some may still be available and if something catches your eye, then you should check and see if the demo is available as well.

  • A Duel Hand Disaster (ADHD) trackher: Release Date: 20/07/2020

The developers describe the game as the “first single-player co-op game” but I think that ‘twin-stick genre game’ is much more appropriate in explaining the game at least; on the left stick you have a Space Invaders-esque arcade, fixed-horizontal shooter where your ship is invincible but allowing enemies to get through is really bad; the right side is a top down “stealth” thing with emphasis on placement and timing of a ship. The way these two genres mix and how each interacts with the other is the actual game here; standing in an area on the right side will start the encounters on the left side, destroying enemies on the left will drop resources on the right that need to be picked up, and so on. Super cool and unique idea; not my type of game, however it is certainly one of the most unique games in the event. I would have liked to have something else going for it besides the leaderboard chasing (there are hints of a story, but not nearly enough) and the fact that the game is upfront about not tutoriolizing you, but after every death a relevant tutorial video pops up that doesn’t really say anything but also kind of works and tutoriolizes some aspects of the game, is a weird concept and what feels like something that was a compromise and isn’t really all that great. But neat little concepts like the interplay between screens and needing to shift focus when the time is right, as well as wrinkles to established concepts like score-chasing games urging you to play until you lose, where ADHD asks you to save your score because if you don’t you lose everything.

  • Ars Fabulae: Release Date: 2020

Was hoping for more. It’s very Edith Finch, but the new setting is ripe for some great melodrama; you are an actress going back to your hometown to perform a final play for a theater that means a great deal to you. During that process, you get reacquainted with the place and discover some long-forgotten plays that took place at the theater and through them you encounter the gameplay vignettes and get most of the story. This is one of those stories that simply allows the concept to fit into gameplay ideas and story themes seamlessly, which is what drew me to this game and Edith Finch, and not a lot of games have really done that yet. Unfortunately, the gameplay sections take the form of platformers and puzzle solving, which is a great idea but the execution was not there in this early build. Similarly, the pitch for the story is great, but the execution just didn’t grab me; voice acting could use some work, the writing isn’t corny enough to be fun in that sense or melodramatic enough to be entertaining.

  • Bite the bullet: Release Date: 13/08/2020 (Switch and PC) 14/08/2020 (Xbox One)

Great concept, hated the execution; a Metal Slug inspired 2D action-platformer where each enemy is edible and through them you get new upgrades, mutations, and other helpful (although not completely) side effects. Just the idea that your enemies are all edible is enough to get me excited; there are so many interesting things that could be done with that idea like RPG mechanics or visuals or gameplay changes depending on how you interact with it. To its credit those ideas are mostly there, but I just didn’t like the way the game felt; platforming felt loose, combat felt very soft and non-impactful. Honestly, I just didn’t like the feedback process; visually, I couldn’t tell which “lunch” was best for me, so I just ate them all and felt no real difference in either a visual or mechanical term.

  • Book of adventum: Release date: Summer 2020

Immersive sim meets “Myst” and “Sir, you’re being haunted”. That concept is great, but this feels like a very early version of that and needs a lot of work and iteration to reach its potential; its buggy, the core mechanics need some work, and visually it needs refinement. I want to see how it progresses and I will keep my eye on it, but for what it is right now the biggest problem is the visual feedback and telegraphing of what is next for the player; for example, there is a house you need to reach and when you reach it you see the door, an old generator, and a broken chimney, so when the door is locked and you need to enter the house before unlocking it, as a player I checked the generator (did not work) and then I searched for a way to get to the roof. After getting on top of the roof, the top of the broken chimney seemed like an entrance and a jump I could make and since there were no other visible points of interest, I spent 15 minutes trying to make that jump, when the actual way to enter the house was a hole on the roof in the exact opposite direction that was really hard to see. Point being that if you changed the layout of the house where the chimney is next to the hole, then when I start going after the chimney I will stumble upon the hole and progress without wasting my time and getting the point that exploration will be rewarded. Beyond that, the shooting mechanics were really rough from what I played and would like to see some improvement in that department as well.

Cris Tales: Release Date: 17/11/2020

Definitely the most complete demo of the event and a buy from me when it comes out. A throwback J-RPG with an interesting turn-based combat, a great hook (being able to see past, present, and future in real time) and lovely art style. I would love to have seen more of how the decision will impact the world (there is an example of it, but I would have liked to see more), however this is what a great demo looks like; get the gist of what the game will offer and leaves you wanting for more.

  • Dandy Ace: Release Date: 21/02/2021

Hidden gem of the event for me. Basically a Supergiant game (with the faux top-down perspective, emphasis on tactical, real-time combat) but with rogue-lite elements from Dead Cells and an interesting hook; basically, your abilities are decided by deck building, so each slot has specific abilities that go into it, but which ones is always up to chance. It plays really well, its real smooth and with great flair, it has a pretty good art style that provides great readability to the encounters, and I left wanting more, so great demo.

  • Darkestville Castle: Release Date: 13/08/2020

Point and click adventure game, throwback to the golden age of that genre, specifically the LucasArts adventure games from the 90s. It looks fine and the dialogue is funny at times, but this isn’t really my type of game and thus my critique may not be as valid, however I wanted to be able to tell which objects were interactable just by looking at them, and I wanted a fast way to get to the edges of the screen. There are ways to highlight which objects are interactable, but with a controller and with the fixed camera angles I still managed to miss a few objects in the first 4 screens. Similarly, double clicking on the edge of the screen will make the character run, but getting there with the controller was actually the most time consuming part of the activity and wished to see more improvements on that (Darkside Detective on Switch makes the pointer move faster if you push both sticks in the same direction, which is a nice way to handle this issue).

  • Deleveled: Release Date: Summer 2020

I love puzzle games, although physics-based puzzle games are not really my thing, but Deleveled seems like an excellent one nonetheless; it has the tell-tale feature of any great puzzle game (easy to understand, hard to solve) and it quickly gets more challenging and smarter as it goes on. If you’re interested in physics-based puzzle games, then this should definitely be on your watchlist.

  • Destroy All Humans!: Release Date: 28/07/2020

I’ve tried to keep away from demos I already knew the games or I already knew that I was going to get the game anyway, like not seeing a trailer for movie you know you will see regardless, but I couldn’t help myself and I downloaded this demo. This remaster/remake is great; it is more of a remaster as the mechanics, story, and design are kept the same, but the models, world, and fidelity are given a modern treatment. I was always a fan of the original and its clear Mars Attack! influences and this just convinced me further that this is a must buy for me. I don’t know how someone without the knowledge of what this cult classic was and how the remaster is simply trying to recapture that, but I’m sold! By the way, for those who don’t know this game is about an alien coming to destroy all humans (duh) and uses unique weapons like lasers, powers like being able to transform into any human nearby, vehicles like a spaceship, and its mostly a whimsical action game, that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

  • Genesis Noir: Release Date: TBA

This is one of those weird games that I just have to play to see how it works and what it actually is; it’s a noir tale of a love triangle that results in a gunshot (The Big Bang that creates our universe) and trying to save your love. This is just as weird and unique as that description implies; the gameplay is all about exploration, figuring out what to do next (whether that’s identifying and copying patterns, simple interactions with objects, etc.) and moving the story forward, and I’m absolutely sold on it. My only issue is that I played it on Xbox, when this is clearly meant for touchscreens or mouse, so I will be looking forward to that Switch release!

  • Haven: Release Date: 2020

In all honesty, this is one of those games that has me excited about the industry, in general. Games as a medium is still so young and can be advanced in so many meaningful ways and Haven can be a game that advances the medium; a romance co-op game, Haven is about a young couple running away from their home so they can live together and enjoy their love, and while this sounds like a corny romance novel, romance in video games has never been taken as seriously as this premise before – it is mostly explored as VNs and side quests in RPGs with sleazy sex scenes at the end. As the medium matures, it is important to not take itself too seriously, but also its important for creatives to explore a multitude of themes and subjects. Haven has everything going for it to be a milestone for gaming; its combat is a turn-based system that tasks players to work together to create combos in real-time, which makes perfect sense if you’re playing co-op with your partner; it has meta game progression with light-survival and RPG elements that again work perfectly in a co-op setting with a partner; its story and decisions allowed are perfectly solid thus far and, again, make more sense if played with a partner; the glide mechanic takes a bit to get used, but once it clicks it is fluid, fun, and a great way to convey and provide moments of YA-styled romance. The potential is there and the demo does a great job at convincing you that the potential will be met, so I have high hopes for this one.

  • Kung Fu Kickball: Release Date: 2020

This sounded interesting when I downloaded it, but quickly found out that this is not a game for me; party couch co-op games are not really something that I have a great interest besides some notable exceptions. Having said that, I didn’t really like the way movement and controls felt in a single-player setting; they were too floaty and not precise enough for my liking. This, however, comes with a big caveat; if I had played Overcooked in a single player setting or Nidhogg, maybe the initial impressions would be bad because of how those controls would makes sense in a co-op setting. I appreciate the fact that there is single player content, but maybe that wasn’t for the best in terms of this demo. Quick Note: If you do get a hold of this demo, there are co-op sections available and can test out the game in that context and make an informed decision based on that.

  • Mars power industries: Release Date: 2018 for mobile, 2019 Switch and PC, N/A Xbox

Another hidden gem for me; self-described as being influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey, I needed no further convincing to try it and I was amazed at how much I enjoyed the game. Basically, it is Into the Breach, but instead of combat puzzles, they are just regular puzzles, but with the same level of quality and brilliant design. Another game that earned a buy from me, especially since I found out it was out already on PC; only feedback I would give is I would like to see a planning phase for when the puzzles get harder, but since undoing and retrying it instant, it would be just something to please my weird brain rather than a meaningful flaw.

  • Projection: First Light: Release Date: 2019 Apple arcade, coming soon for other platforms

A puzzle platformer with a pretty cool idea, unique art style, and solid gameplay; you are a puppet that must manipulate the light to cast shadows and use them to progress. Manipulating the light didn’t feel as great as I had hoped (a bit too janky and finicky), but it is an early build so I hope that will be rectified when the game releases. Likewise, the physics of the shadows never felt great for me and it was like I stumbled upon a “good enough” solution rather than executing what I wanted to do. This is one of those games that I hadn’t really heard of before the event, but now I’m going to keep my eye on it and hopefully when it releases, some of these issues will be addressed.

  • The Vale: Shadow of the Crown: Release Date: N/A

Certainly, the most unique game in the event and one of the most surprising for me. It describes itself as a game for the visually impaired and sighted gamers alike, and that certainly is true; visually, it is just a black screen (kind of like a screensaver for Windows XP), but the entirety of vital information for this medieval-RPG is given to the player by audio only and it works surprisingly well. As a player you need to explore using sounds to guide you and you have all the choices other games give you as well; you can sneak by using the voices of guards, you can fight, dodge, parry by using the sounds of weapons, you have a hub that will have you take quests and upgrade equipment, as well as talk to people and progress the story, all through sound. This huge change in how a game can relay the information necessary is enough to make the game very interesting and unique, however whether this is enough for a sighted gamer like myself to go through the entire game remains to be seen/heard. Depending on the length, the strength of the story (which is interesting because you are playing as a blind lady in the medieval ages), the pacing, and the progression mechanics and of the mechanics, this could be one of those industry-shifting games; one note I have is that, since this game’s audio is vital and it takes great pride in accessibility, I’m baffled as to why there are no subtitles for the dialogue, especially since the VAs use accents that may be hard to understand for non-native speakers – I get that this won’t help visually impaired gamers, but if accessibility is the point, then subtitles are one of the key features for that.

  • Welcome to Elk: Release Date: 2020

I’ve saved the best for last (thankfully, alphabetically it is last so I can make this look intentional). As I’ve already said, I love weird, quirky games and Welcome to Elk has demonstrated how it can be my sleeper hit for the year; it’s about a young girl arriving at Elk to be a carpenter’s apprentice and dealing with the weird and absurd residents and society of the place. This game ticks all the boxes for me: Weird, surreal, and colorful art style? Check; Fun, goofy, and bizarre mini-games? Check; Absurd characters that on the surface are strange and funny, but have seemingly poignant themes to explore through? Check; Oddball and funny story to glue the whole thing together? Check; FMV with the real people that this entire, ludicrous adventure is apparently, loosely based on? Check…Wait what?! I need this now, I’m extremely excited for this game.   

And there you have it: This article only took a month after the event ended to come out, so this is an improvement for me, but I do hope that you check out some of these games and look at more stuff that came out during that time like Skate Bird and Raji: An Ancient Epic, because this was a genuinely awesome event that I hope Xbox gets to host again, and because it is a good reminder that a lot of creative and talented people are working on games you might not know about, so the future will always hold something worthwhile to look forward to.

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