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Steam Nextfest 2021 Demo impressions

Another Game Fest, another endless stream of demos on both Xbox and Steam. Steam even gave their event a separate name this year, and hosted close to 700 demos; compared to Xbox, Steam did a good job at discoverability, but with the quantity of demos (and probable quality) I am bound to have missed a few good ones. While the overview and functionality of Steam’s Nextfest was pretty good, I still had to struggle to get to explore this year’s festival. Anyway, this is the list of demos I tried on alphabetical order and some thoughts on them; as always, do give them a search as some demos have remained available, but most are gone. If you tried anything from the festival that is missing, let me know!

Steam list:

  • Bear and Breakfast. Developer: Gummy Cat, published by Armor Games studio. Release Date: 2021

Management games, for me, have always been a “I want to like them, but I quickly realize I don’t”, similar to survival games; I like them in theory, but don’t click with them in practice. Bear and Breakfast will hopefully break that tradition, as I really enjoyed the style, the goofiness, and the more casual approach to management. It is less stressful and more engaging – adding systems like crafting and resource gathering to the mix – and these changes really worked their charm on me and I am very interested to see where it goes. Add another to the ever-expanding wishlist and probable day-one purchases, I guess!

  • Chasing Static. Developer: Headware Games, published by Ratalaika Games. Release Date: Coming Soon

I’ve always loved horror, yet I never really liked horror games. When The Medium released earlier this year, I thought that I should give it another go and it worked! I enjoyed that a lot and have been giving some indie experiences more patience and found them really compelling as well; I still can’t enjoy the less “friendly” titles that ask you to risk progress or be really stringy with resources. I like games such as Chasing Static; atmospheric, moody, solving puzzles with the paranoia of something lurking around the corner, surrealist experience. The demo was really strong and reminded me terribly of Paratopic and that is high praise indeed. I am looking forward to this and hopefully it will be more of Paratopic’s ilk rather than survival horror – or at least have some difficulty sliders – because I am sold on this game and want to play it when it comes out.

  • Dodgeball Academia. Developer: Pocket Trap, published by Humble Games. Release Date: 2021.

Pokemon fans rejoice! There are so many monster collecting RPGs out there that all offer something different; add to that list Dodgeball Academia. This particular example just takes tone and system inspirations from monster collecting games, but adds its own dodgeball combat and irreverent humor to the mix and it is quite fun to play. I think the combat is pretty good and can be a challenge, while the rest of the game is a goofy take on “teens going to school for a specific thing and end up saving the day” like Harry Potter; there isn’t much to say besides noting the lite RPG stuff, which seems to be less involved than Monster Sanctuary, and that the art style is pretty neat.

  • Greak: Memories of Azur. Developer: Navegante Entertainment, published by Team 17. Release Date: August 17th 2021.

One of the surprises of the festival for me. Looking at the trailer, you can clearly see a beautiful, hand-drawn game, but you can’t see how good it is to play; it reminds me of Brothers, in that it seems to want to be a co-op experience for single-player, because you are actively re-learning how to play a game of this style and are being challenged on that constantly, but besides the smart puzzle design, there are plentiful combat situations and it is entertaining for the short period of time I spent with it. As with Brothers, a lot of it will depend on winning players over and giving them reason to defeat their impulses, but if it manages to do that for the entirety of the game, then it will be a special game indeed.

  • Industria. Developer: Bleakmill, published by Headup. Release Date: Q3 2021.

One of the few shooters to peak my interest and the only FPS on this list, Industria is (if I wanted to be reductive) an even Indier Atomic Heart, with clear Bioshock and Metro/Stalker influences. Where Stalker 2 goes for a spectacular AAA take on the formula, where Atomic Heart seems to go for the Russian Anime take, Industria seems to be taking the Steampunk route with a bit more focus on action (at least at the normal difficulty setting). It seems to need some more visual work, especially for clarity purposes, and the mixing was not where it needed to be, but I had fun shooting and existing in another weird world that seems to have a compelling enough mystery to keep me going. If this game has a good enough launch and goes for that mid-length shooter campaign that packs a lot and paces itself well, I would be very interested, but we’ll have to wait and see.

  • Kitaria Fables. Developer: Twin Hearts, published by PQube Limited. Release Date: September 2nd 2021.

For all the influence Stardew Valley has had on the indie gaming scene in these past few years, My Time at Portia is quickly reaching that same mark (surprisingly as well, as I don’t really like that game). Kitaria Fables is My Time at Portia but with anthropomorphic animals and a bit more depth in combat; just like with its influence, I don’t really like that take as much as I think I do everytime I see those games and get sucked into trying them. The reason this entry still exists on this list is because I was especially done with the game from halfway through the demo, as combat felt sluggish and without any great satisfaction to it. There is an upcoming My Time at Portia sequel called “My Time at Sandrock”, which seems to have better combat and launches in 2021 on Early Access, so you might want to check that out first.

  • Kraken Academy!! Developer: Happy Broccoli Games, published by Fellow Traveller. Release Date: 2021.

Another positive surprise, Kraken Academy!! is a comedy-mystery-time-loop game, where you go to summer camp and have to save it from a traitor who aims to destroy it in 3 days; you’ll probably fail, so the magical lake Kraken gives you an amulet to rewind and try again, until you succeed. This was one of the few games that made me laugh during this festival and I liked the mood; I’m still not sure about the time-travel aspect as I had a particularly hard time getting into a similar game (The Sexy Brutale), but I’m hoping it can deliver something more casual and less puzzely-more adventury. 

  • Little Witch in the Woods. Developer: Sunny Side Up. Release Date: TBA.

This is an early demo with a confined area and a solid taster of what the game is intended to be, so I cant really make to many judgement calls on it as this Stardew Valley inspired games mostly live and die on details and balancing. There is too much backtracking and the movement speed feels really restrictive; you get inventory upgrades way too fast on this version and the side quests are fetch quest without any charm to them. These mean nothing though; the writing could significantly improve and I won’t care about the fetch quests; the main quests (which have you finding receipes and making potions to solve an issue) seem pretty good and could get even better and be used more often. Point being, I like this taster and I’m going to keep up to date with it, hopefully it will take shape into something really good because it certainly has the potential to do so.

  • Lost Nova. Developer: Jon Nielsen, published by HopFrog. Release Date: Fall 2021.

Forager was a great game that I loved dearly, so when HopFrog announced a new game, I was excited to see it and it having a playable demo was a great surprise; Lost Nova did not disappoint me. It is a space-themed take on Forager with a lot of similarities and a lot of differences as well and so far, I like this take a lot. It’s a bit more grindy than Forager was (especially early game which is what the demo is) and it seems to be more finite than Forager, but I’m very optimistic for the final product and look forward to getting my hands on the full release.

  • Murder Mystery Machine. Developer: Blazing Griffin, published by Microids. Release Date: Coming Soon.

This is one of those games that completely slipped my radar and passed me by from the conferences in E3 (if it was even there) and I can’t figure out why. It looks really great with a “dollhouse” aesthetic making you feel like you’re playing a reconstruction of events, which is a suiting style for a detective game. The main mechanic is this game’s version of the “mind palace” where all the clues and evidence are stored for you to deduce and work out the mystery. It’s not as unique looking as it sounds and if you’ve played a Frogwares Games’ Sherlock Holmes, you’ll be instantly familiar with it, however the cases, writing, and mechanics seem to have more depth to them; connecting the red strings is not binding or “wrong”, more of a way to organize your case and that organically leads to moments of “Aha!”, which unlocks interrogation options and dialogue. It’s not going to reset expectations of what detective games can be like Obra Dinn, but it certainly can be an excellent addition to the detective genre and who knows, they might surprise me by the end and be a game-changer. Either way, I’m interested and I want to see the full release.

  • My Lovely Wife. Developer: Game Changer Studio, Toge Production, published by Neon Doctrine. Release Date: Coming Soon.

The sequel to My Lovely Daughter that manages to be even more “suggestive” with its themes and ideas; where My Lovely Daughter explored child abuse in an attempt to “create” the perfect child and child labor, My Lovely Wife has the player summoning Succubus to work in brothels and then extract the essence they gather, so you can recreate your dead wife. So, get ready to have uncomfortable moments where you get attached to characters, kill them to progress, and then becoming more cold-hearted than you ever thought a game could make you; get ready to demand from your Brothel-working Succubus to stop complaining and do her “job”. The sequel seems to be willing to provide caustic commentary (I mean Succubus as brother workers is as on the nose as it can get – at least in terms of how some segments of society see sex workers) and add some dating sim elements as well, because what better way to make me even more uncomfortable and make my actions even harder to avoid confronting on a personal and philosophical level? Sounds fun, people should play the first game as well (it can get pretty cheap on sale) because it’s a good game and it’s a good taster if you missed the demo for the sequel. As far as hopes for the sequel, I hope they have some “game magic” spells, because I don’t really want them to change anything, but also, I never finished the first game (which I should) so there is definitely things to improve and I hope I finish the sequel without forcing myself to do so.

  • No Longer Home. Developer: Humble Grove amongst others, published by Fellow Traveller. Release Date: 2021

One of my favorite things in entertainment is Kentucky Route Zero, so No Longer Home should be right up my alley. They look and feel so similar, and No Longer Home deals with something I have emotional baggage with, yet I can’t connect to it (as far as the demo goes). I find the similar styles to be hurting NLH, the gameplay to be less interesting, and the writing to be have less flair and intrigue, when compared to KRZ; such comparisons may be unfair, but I can’t help it. This doesn’t mean I won’t give NLH a chance, but launching the demo and figuring out how “close” the style is to KRZ and not coming out of it with NEEDING more info, is a bummer. I’ll give it a shot down the line, but given how much this should speak to me, it’s a shame that I was left unimpressed by it.

  • NORCO. Developer: Geography of Robots, published by Raw Furry. Release Date: TBA.

Featured in the Tribeca Game Festival, NORCO has gained a lot of attention for its style and for good reason; it’s a damn good game to look at. All it really needs is a solid story and mechanics on deliverying that story – alongside the interactive aspects such as choices, multiple endings, puzzles – in an interesting way. Raw Furry just published Backbone, which had a similarly good sense of style, but failed to keep most people engaged to see it through, so NORCO could suffer a similar fate, however the demo gives me a lot of cautious optimism; it looks good, it sounds good, the writing is good, and the gameplay is classic (with a lot of modern touches), which made me really enjoy the demo and wanting to see more. Hopefully the full release will deliver as well.

  • Reina & Jericho. Developer: Reclamation Games. Release Date: 2021.

Action-platformer, side scroller, with time mechanics and narrative driven. The demo does an even worse job at selling this game than that description. The combat is floaty and unresponsive, the puzzle segments are not that interesting, however the general flow (which seems to be pretty swift) and the interesting narrative that promises player choice could be enough for some to find enjoyment. For me, that isn’t enough to convince me to keep it in mind, however this could be one for the far future for a good sale.

  • Road 96. Developer: Digixart. Release Date: Summer 2021

A game that didn’t sound interesting for me, until I tried the demo and it became interesting. Road 96 is a procedurally generated, narrative driven, adventure game, about a teen road-tripping towards the border of their oppressive country to flee. The game leans on that procedural generation a lot, which is why I wasn’t as sold on it, but it is actually a clever way to say “there are lots of branches and diversions from the main path”, or at least that is the impression the demo gave me. There will be many different ways the same stories can play out and they don’t seem to play out at a set order, so it is very interesting to see the different combination of these stories play out; the demo showed me a few of these versions where some had minigames and more light-hearted approach, while others had a more serious tone with point & click narrative driven mechanics. I had a great time playing it twice and would have played it more if I was allowed, so I am looking forward to the full release and will hope that it convinces me to replay it multiple times and get the intended experience.

  • The Big Con. Developer: Mighty Yell, published by Skybound Games. Release Date: Summer 2021.

Last year’s Demo Festival had a few games I was expecting to see and dying to try out, even though I knew I was going to get them the moment I saw them. The Big Con, alongside Sable, is one of those games and the demo made me even more excited about it; I love the art style, the delinquent teen mood and humor, the inventive premise, and the gameplay so far delivers. It is funny, fun, and allows for creativity in how you steal and earn that seemingly impossible sum you need to reach; it also hints at the larger story, which does seem to be dealing with the questionable method Ali choses to get money and what impact it will have on her family and friends. Overall, I was excited for The Big Con, now I’m very excited indeed!

  • The Legend of TianTing. Developer: CGCG, published by Neon Doctrine. Release Date: TBA

This was by far the most stylish and pleasant surprise of the festival; a Chinese-Manga inspired telling of the story of the “Taiwanese Robin Hood” in a 2D, side-scrolling, brawler. It oozes with style, even if the “comic-book panels coming to life” gimmick is getting a bit old, and the brawling is tight and challenging (at least for me and I don’t play many brawlers). There are power-ups, mini-games, and exploring parts of Tapei City to look forward to as well, with the demo giving some light, progression-based exploration as well. I really enjoyed this and did not expect that, but I now look forward to getting more of it.

  • Thief’s Roulette. Developer: hiromu656, published by Top Hat Studios. Release Date: TBA

Another demo I just stumbled upon in the festival page that looked interesting. It has clear Danganronpa, Ace Attorney, inspirations, but provides a gameplay experience centered on escape rooms, rather than investigations. While I liked that aspect enough, there is no real reason to talk to anyone and even after speaking with them, I still found no reason to speak with them; they look interesting, but they are as interesting as a paper cut out of a beige wall. There is still potential with the full release and with the story providing more context and events for the characters to build themselves on, as well as having more interesting escape rooms to escape from, but I was hoping for a bit more.

  • TOEM. Developer: Something We Made. Release Date: 2021.

Another Wholesome Direct find and an instant buy from me. I love this rise of “Indie Pokemon Snap” and TOEM seems to be another, slightly different take on that, but with a lot more for me to enjoy. It is a chill and cheerful trip simulator that wants the player to have the feeling of going to a new place, meeting new people and cultures, and bonding with them. It has a great look, some fun riddles and puzzles, and it gave me a permanent smile while playing it, and I want more of that.

  • Unpacking. Developer: Witch Beam, published by Humble Games. Release Date: 2021.

I WANT THIS NOW! This is by far the game of the festival for me. I love these chill games with weird premises, but Unpacking is beyond anything else from this year. I love the demo and have completed it twice, and would have completed it more times had I not found a billion other demos I wanted to play. Its got a cool soundtrack, a soft and warming aesthetic, and an addictive, aimed at everyone’s inherent levels of OCD that can only be satisfied if the stuffed animals are in the same vicinity! I fell in love with this game and I want it now, thankfully we won’t have to wait for long!

  • UNSIGHTED. Developer: Studio Pixel Punk, published by Humble Games. Release Date: 2021

UNSIGHTED asks players a simple question: Did you like Hyper Light Drifter as much as everyone else did? If you answer was affirmative, then UNSIGHTED is for you – and me. It isn’t derivative of it, although it does have some aspects that are less about inspiration and more imitation, but it does offer a lot of new ideas; it’s a more straight-forward puzzle and combat experience that challenges skills, reaction, and wit, more directly. It also seems to have more traditional aspirations; its story has words and its items have descriptions that have words, which I don’t think is going to be more memorable but it will be more appealing to more people. Overall, I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten as much attention and I look forward to seeing more from it.

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