Another Game Fest, another endless stream of demos on both Xbox and Steam. Here is a list of the demos I played and what I thought of them. These were the ones I thought were the most interesting (for me) from Xbox’s list; their discoverability was not as good this year, so I probably missed a bunch, but there were so many to chose from with so many big names, I would probably not have tried most of them anyway. The list is in alphabetical order and it might be worth giving these games a search, as some demos have stayed, but most are gone by now.
- Battle cakes. Developer: Volcano Bean. Release Date: 2021.
When I saw this, for the first time, during the Wholesome Games Direct, I thought that despite this game’s cutesy art style and whimsical nature (something I am a big fan of), I was not interested in it; whether it was the turn-based combat that threw me off or the lack of anything “popping” out, I just forgot about it, until I went to the Xbox Demo showcase and saw a demo for it. My initial gut reaction from the trailer is still the same after playing the demo; this game is not for me. However, I really liked the style and some of the ideas it has for a combat loop; inspired by pacifist-runs from games like Undertale, Battle cakes allows the player to “charm” their enemies and befriend them or attack them or a combination of the two. Its an interesting take on that and I think there is a lot of depth to it with the right implementation, however this is not something I was blown away by to keep it on the forefront of my mind; this is an “add it to the wishlist and wait for reactions or sale to get eventually”.
- Black Book: Prologue. Developer: Morteshka, Published by HypeTrain Digital. Release Date: Q3 2021.
A recently widowed woman embraces the dark magic to become a witch and journey unto hell to bring back her husband – that is a premise with potential! It looks stylish and the writing seems to be on-point to deliver an Eastern European Gothic motif; I was really impressed with this game. I do have some worries with its combat mechanics. It is inspired by modern card battlers like Slay the Spire, but there is less clarity on display, which is something vital for me; I knew what I was doing and I could intuit the outcomes by the end, but I was never sure exactly what would happen, which is something a better tutorial or some minor UI changes/more information display could easily change.
- Button City. Developer: Subliminal. Release Date: Q3 2021.
A cute fox completing mini-games in a narrative-driven adventure game. I was sold the moment I saw the trailer, but the demo does show a few issues I hope are ironed out, mainly tutorilizing some aspects of the mini-game I played. Other than that, I liked the look, the writing, and the vibes, which are the most important aspects of this game, so I am excited to get my hands on the full release.
- Death Trash. Developer: Crafting Legends. Release Date: August 5th 2021.
Death Trash is the first example of a common trend I saw in this year’s selection of demos: I didn’t expect much going in, it completely surpassed those expectations, but did not convince me of a day one purchase. The trailer shows a game that I would say “not for me” to, yet when I played the demo, there were clear RPG inspirations that I loved, with multiple choices of dialogue and routes, loot that seemed promising, different play-styles that all felt plausible and fun. I had a great time with it and there is enough there to replay the demo at least twice, and get a few different moments to sample; I just don’t know if this is the game I would get immediately. It is planned for early-access, so I might wait for its full release, but this is one of those cases where people with more experience and interest in this old-school Fallout-esque game get excited by it, I might jump in earlier.
- Dreamers. Developers: PlaySys. Release Date: October 8th 2021.
I didn’t hear anything about this game before stumbling upon it on the demo’s page, but it seemed right up my alley. 3D, adventure, narrative-driven, puzzles, mini-games. I gave up after 15 minutes of looking around for small chicken for a fetch quest with tiny, inconsistent audio cues to guide me. The art style looks fine, but the animations and lack of any distinct features made me not want to power through the short demo.
- Faraday Protocol. Developer: Red Koi Box, published by Deck 13. Release Date: 2021
There weren’t a lot of puzzle games to catch my eye during this showcase (or in general for the past year), so I thought I would give a chance to a puzzle game that is not my usual cup of tea. Faraday Protocol is about exploring an alien (at least to your character) base, pushing through its challenges, and discovering what is happening. The demo showcases a sequence of puzzles where you use a weapon to retract or give energy to objects and solve puzzles by manipulating the systems to get your character to the exit; it’s a cool concept and I liked it more than I thought, but I still was not sold on it. The few puzzles that were not “tutorials” seemed to use a hub space that was a bit too cumbersome to explore; you had to retract and give energy to a specific object each time you wanted to open a door (you didn’t even pick the door; it was in a sequential order). Thus, exploring the rooms, looking for environmental or logical clues was just tedious and figuring out the solution and seeing if it is correct took minutes, delaying that excitement and that reward for too long.
- Fractal Space. Developer: Haze Games. Release Date: 2021.
Another puzzle game I usually don’t enjoy that much, but this was a more positive experience. I really enjoyed the puzzles without any serious caveats; they are movement, environment, logic, and path-finding based, with some precision aiming/timing needed for some. There are several that require moving back and forth from rooms, some obscure bits of information, but because movement and connectivity between spaces is so player-friendly, I didn’t mind that; I felt able to experiment or try stuff without worrying too much about it, which made the solutions more fun to find and more rewarding. The part I hated was the talkative-AI, clearly inspired by Portal; it’s less the attempts at humor and more the awkward execution in writing and VO. That is a minor problem though – as I do enjoy the opportunity to mute puzzle games and play over my music or podcasts – and Fractal Space has earned a spot on my watchlist.
- Princess Farmer. Developer: Samobee Digital, published by Whitehorn Digital. Release Date: 2021
One of the few disappointments of the showcase this year. When I saw this on the Wholesome Direct I was ready to love it; cute style, match-3 puzzle gameplay, and that charming, wholesome mood. Having played it I found the actual puzzles to be…not for me. It’s more Puyo-Puyo than Puzzle Quest and I’m not really into that style. Other than that, everything else is top-notch, from character-designs to music, but the main interest for me was the gameplay in combination with everything else and I did not enjoy that; if you are a Puyo-Puyo fan though, there should be something here for you and it is worth keeping an eye on it.
- Sable. Developer: Shedworks, published by Raw Furry. Release Date: September 23rd 2021.
Not since Cuphead, have I had a reaction to a game trailer like Sable – just open a new tab and look for any screenshots of this game. Need I say more? I am getting this game, because I want to bathe in its art-style (it is that good) and listen to its soundtrack while doing so, thus the demo was never really meant to sell it self (at least for me), it was meant to showcase what I will be getting when I buy it. This seems to be an exploration game with some BOTW, some hover-bike sections, lots of story and side questing; that all seems great, especially the writing which seems really good from the small portion I saw of it. I do have some concerns about the jankyness of the controls like the hover-bike never felt great to use, which is understandable as that was a tutorial bike. My only real concern is with the janky animations, particularly the ones that influence gameplay. Climbing animations that end before the model is up on the ledge, camera getting stuck in weird places, getting caught in that weird mid-place between ledge and top of hill forcing extra use of stamina, etc. This is less of an issue if the game is as exploration-heavy as it seems to be, but if it starts demanding more precision or introducing some stakes, then I do hope those are sorted out, because it could be the difference between what seems to be a fantastic game and a good one that could have been so much more.
- Teacup. Developer: Smarto Club, published by Whitehorn Digital. Release Date: 2021.
Another Wholesome Direct game (which shaped up to be one of the best conferences of E3 this year, at least for me). This is a more straightforward adventure game that has some good potential that it hopefully lives up to. It is about a frog getting ingredients to make her favorite beverage – tea. The game looks great and it is very chill, however I do hope that the game has less back-tracking/wandering around to solve the next puzzle, or at least has a faster moving speed. Other than that, I’ll definitely keep my eye on it.
- The Riftbraker. Developer: EXOR studios, published alongside with Surefire Games. Release Date: Fall 2021.
This game is just one of those that will see a lot of wide interest, just because it looks really good and the premise is so widely encompassing of many aspects a lot of people are looking for. It has base-building, resource gathering, twin-stick shooting, hack and slash, and Action-RPG elements. Having played it, I do feel this will be a surprise hit and sell really well with an even more surprising retention rate; GamePass on day one will certainly help with that and I had a great time, which I was not expecting. I thought I would get into a Factorio-esque complex, automation simulator, but the demo shows a lot of good ideas taken from multiple genres and mixing them up together for a good experience; I bet there will be enough room for people to go extreme with it, especially base building (full automation or just the basics and playing it as an ARPG), but I am very hopeful this will be one of those base-building games I finally can get into for more than a couple of hours.
- Tunic. Developer: Andrew Shouldice, published by Finji. Release Date: TBD
Tunic is one of those games that has got a lot of hype around it and I can now see why, yet I can’t match that level of anticipation. This game is made by one guy and this would be impressive by a small group of 10 developers, so the reason to be excited is clear; it is also a really good game, if the demo is to be seen as a taster for the full game. It is jam-packed with secrets, charm, lots of mystery, and a combat system that is a lot harder than it looks at first glance. It is shaping up to be a great game and I do want to play it…eventually. I do really like these Zelda inspired games, but I also see them come out by the dozens each year and, impressive as Tunic is, I can’t really get excited for it. This is certainly a buy from me; however, I was not as blown away as everyone else is.