Steam Next Fest: Games to Watch

So many demos, so little time

Steam Next Fest: Games to Watch
Source: Steam.

Another year, another Steam Next Fest! June 10th through the 17th showcased a plethora of upcoming games, ranging from small indie projects by single developers all the way to large studio releases. Developers presented this enormous cake of gaming goodness through hundreds of demos, offering more vertical slices than anyone could ever hope to consume in a mere seven days, especially if you’re a writer wasting your time coming up with a belabored pun like that.

As someone who grew up reading gaming magazines and playing demo CDs, I love demos. This year, I dedicated myself to exploring Next Fest and compiled some of my favorite highlights worth keeping an eye on.

Old School Rally. Source: Steam.

Old School Rally

Frozen Lake Games

With racing games, I’ve always found that it is hard to beat the white-knuckled excitement that only rally can produce; the feeling of controlling a ton of steel careening along a slippery and bumpy dirt road, flanked by trees, rocks, and cliffs, where the slightest mistake can end in disaster. There truly is no racing experience quite like it.

The rally racing genre hit its stride in the late 90s and early 2000s with iconic titles such as Mobil 1 Rally Championship, Screamer Rally, Sega Rally, Richard Burns Rally, and of course, the beloved Colin McRae Rally, a series that defined rally racing at the turn of the century like no other. If you loved Colin McRae, then Old School Rally might be the game for you.

From Greek developer Frozen Lake Games, this game is a love letter to the golden era of rally gaming, and to Colin McRae Rally most of all. The demo takes inspiration from the 90s rally-greats, including the Subaru Impreza WRX, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII, and Peugeot 206. It also includes three rally stages: Australia, Finland, and Sweden.

"Any resemblance to actual car brands or names is purely coincidental." What a coincidence! Source: Author.

The driving model is solid, and with a bit of practice, you'll be executing power slides and Scandinavian flicks like a pro. The soundtrack is unequivocally on-point for a game so inspired - pumping drum & bass straight off a PSOne CD audio track. With only three stages and three cars, there's not a lot to dive into with the demo, but what is on offer is extremely satisfying.

There's a bit of fleshing out to do in the design; engine sounds could do with a bit more variety, a few of the textures could do with some work, and I'd like to see the cars have a bit more "weightiness" in the way they hand. In addition, while the co-driver's voice is fine, there is something that feels off listening to calls that are not in a Welsh accent. I wonder how much Colin McRae's longtime co-driver Nicky Grist is charging for voice acting these days?

Source: Steam.

Some minor feedback aside, Old School Rally is exactly what I’ve been craving for years. It is a no-frills rally game without all the unnecessary feature bloats of modern titles. Oh, and did I mention it has a CRT graphics filter? This one is an instant buy for me.


Gator Shins

Coven has been in the works for a while now, and with Gator Shins’ recently updated demo, it's looking like a promising addition to the boomer shooter pantheon. At first glance, Coven might seem quite similar to DUSK and Cultic, but to dismiss Coven as just another grim, dark boomer shooter would be a mistake. Like those other two shooters, Coven takes inspiration from titles like Blood, but also weaves in a magic system similar to Hexen II.

Source: Author.

You play as a girl wrongly accused of witchcraft in an alternate history 1600s. In the opening cutscene, the game subjects you to being burned at the stake (with some genuinely harrowing screams), before the game begins with you clawing your way out of your grave and consuming corpses to regain health. Showcasing the dash mechanic to cross a chasm in the opening tutorial-esque scenes, you will soon slash and hack your way through religious fanatics in your quest for revenge.

The weapons are a mix of melee, firearm,s and magic. After picking up a hatchet and shield, then a flintlock pistol, you’ll step through a portal into some otherworldly realm where you retrieve your spell book, after which you can run around blasting enemies with charged bolts from one hand and pistol bullets from the other. As you’d expect from a boomer shooter like this, there is a generous dose of gore and dismemberment. Consuming corpses builds up acid in your body, which will allow you to vomit all over your enemies. If that all sounds too grim and bloodthirsty for you, then I guarantee you this is not the game for you. But for me, that’s exactly the vibes I’m looking for in a classic FPS.

Source: Author.

Coven looks beautiful, too! I don’t mean it in the sense of ray tracing or high polygon count but in terms of aesthetics. Gator Shins has a clear vision for the vibe he wants to create, and the environments, lighting, and textures all come together perfectly to achieve it. In what is my favourite trend amongst retro-influenced games and remasters, you can switch to retro-inspired rendering at the press of a button — two buttons, in this case. The “PlayStation” hotkey switches the gameplay to 4:3 aspect ratio and lowers the apparent resolution, while the “Nintendo 64” hotkey adds the iconic Nintendo 64 soft texture filtering that defined the platform. It’s exactly the sort of nostalgic fan service that crusty old gamers like me can’t get enough of. I'm setting Coven as a must-buy.

Over the Top: WWI

Flying Squirrel Entertainment

I thought Great War-themed shooters would become popular a few years ago, following the trend of World War II games in the early 2000s, but I was wrong. Instead, World War I games quietly carved out their little corner of the shooter market and have simmered away comfortably for a few years now. BlackMill’s trilogy (Verdun, Tannenberg, and Isonzo), Battlefield 1, and Holdfast (with the addition of the WW1 mode) have earned their small but respectable player bases, and now a new developer has entered the trenches with Over the Top: WWI.

Source: Steam.

Over the Top is really, really fun (unlike the Great War which really, really wasn’t). There are many design similarities with Anvil’s Holdfast and Flying Squirrel’s other US Civil War period shooter, Battle Cry for Freedom, but that is mostly a good thing in my books. Over the Top is a little janky in the way indie projects can sometimes be, but that also adds to the charm.

Graphically, it looks okay, but where Over the Top really shines is how the various effects come together. Smoke blankets the battlefield, muzzle fire flickers from the trenches, and artillery strikes will shake your speakers while the blast fills the screen. Over the Top’s huge battles can really be quite a spectacle. But, best of all, Over the Top features botmatch! No, the AI is not quite on par with Unreal Tournament, but you can have up to 100 per side (if you have a rig that can handle it). Nowadays, there aren’t many shooters with botmatch support, and although Over the Top is mainly a multiplayer game, sometimes you just don’t want the frustration of dealing with other players.

Source: Author.

B.C. Piezophile

3D Glyptics

I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I like it. B.C. Piezophile has the sort of relentlessly opaque design one might normally associate with the late 90s games industry, a time when money and creativity were mingled in ideal quantities with minimal corporate oversight. From the get-go, surreal weirdness permeates this game, and you might be forgiven for throwing in the towel out of pure confusion.

Source: Steam.

I'm not exactly clear on what the premise is, so I'll let the Steam store page speak for itself:

B.C. Piezophile takes place on the hourglass planet—Divine Earth—during an intense territorial dispute after the Second Flood.

Following anomalies observed in the upper atmosphere, the Mercy Envoy Atta crashes and sinks to the bottom of an oceanic trench. Isolated in the extreme reaches of a drowned world, the player has one goal: return with honor.

Confusing, yes. The thing is, I don't want to fully understand it yet. One of the greatest enemies of a strong narrative is excessive exposition and B.C. Piezophile's unrelenting opacity is enticing because it hints at a unique world waiting to be discovered. Or it could be a narrative mess. Who knows? The fun part is the journey and the interpretation.

Source: Steam,

That said, don't expect to understand what is going on simply by jumping in. You'll need to read the forums and possibly ask a few questions, dig through the controls (a shout-out for native ESDF config in addition to WASD), and arm yourself with patience and curiosity.

Even without knowing what the hell is going on, the aesthetic blew me away. There is a real Jules Verne and BioShock meets Daggerfall vibe about the environment, and the sound effects and ambient soundtrack are sublime. I’m not confident enough to call this a must-buy, but B.C. Piezophile stands out purely for its utter uniqueness, and for that alone, I think this is one to watch.

City 20

Untold Games

City 20 is an intriguing post-apocalyptic survival game with an art style reminiscent of a cross between Kenshi and Disco Elysium. Taking place in a country with post-Soviet influences, the introduction tells the story of how you were found at the edge of a nearby swamp by a hermit named Goga. He puts you up in his spare shack on the outskirts of the town of Robach. He allows you to use his well for water and take what food and supplies he has but cautions you to ensure that you replace whatever food and supplies you take. Following that, he tells you that his generator is running out of fuel and passes you a jerry can to fill in the nearby town. And with that, you’re on your own.

Source: Author.

The game heavily recommends playing with a controller, and while it certainly plays nicely with one, the menus are not entirely conducive to it. Unfortunately, the keyboard and mouse controls are a little clunky too. Controls are a minor criticism, however, and will doubtlessly be refined as development continues.

City 20 is unforgiving. There are the barest threads of a tutorial; your first tasks and a few hints on the menu are the extent of it. Other than that, you’re thrust into the wasteland and forced to fend for yourself, including tracking down food, supplies, and, if you stray too far from Goga’s shack, water as well. This sort of game isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoyed Kenshi (Lo-Fi Games), then early indications seem to be that you might enjoy this too.

Source: Author.

I say “might” because it’s hard to say at this stage. The demo only gives you a few days of in-game time to explore, and you’ll likely spend most of that trying to work out what the hell is going on. That said, the first hour or two of any game can provide a good hint as to the overall quality, and there are a lot of small details in City 20 that indicate to me this is a promising game.

The game’s animations are beautiful, the aesthetic is well-considered, and simply wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere gives a real sense of a living, breathing world. If Untold Games can pull off some engaging mechanics, and replayability and maintain the atmosphere of the opening areas of the demo, this game could be a big hit. Definitely one to watch.

So that's a wrap for this Next Fest, make sure to keep an eye on SUPERJUMP for coverage of these games as they make their way toward release!e


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