If there’s one thing I would love to see the gaming world return to, it would be more regular releases of game demos. It seems that developers stopped releasing demos because they would totally derail the hype train process of controlling the drip of information, and early access would lose a lot of its punchiness when a user can kick tires right now and for free. But demos used to be one of — if not the — main avenues for game discovery in the past (I say as images of CD’s enclosed in plastic sleeves glued to the front of magazines dance in your similarly elderly heads).
This is why I am glad that Steam has Next Fest. This period, currently running from October 3rd until October 10th of 2022, has a special section in the storefront where gamers can browse up-and-coming games, watch live streams, and — most importantly — download tons of demo versions. I have taken this time to download several, and while I haven’t spent hours upon hours with each and every one, I have spent a little bit with a lot, so here’s what I’ve found so far.
This 4x game has been on my wishlist for quite some time. It’s got a very heavy neo-humanity feel to it (which played well with me having watched Dune just 24 hours before I tried this demo). The visuals are top-notch, the character portraits are suitable futuristic without being over-the-top or just “sci-fi feudalism”, and it’s very much a “grand strategy” game that really melds the existing medieval offerings with the existing stellar options (I am not going to invoke titles yet again as I feel I’ve beaten those comparisons to death in recent days). And I wouldn’t use this term unless I really meant it, but the soundtrack slaps hard. It’s got to be one of the best damn scores I have heard in a strategy game never mind a video game period. Unfortunately, the game is still in development and as such doesn’t provide much handholding. Tooltips are non-existent which means that as an icon-driven game, it’s next to impossible to figure out what the hell anything means. The in-game encyclopedia exists with a written tutorial, but it’s hardly comprehensive enough to guide anyone but the most hardcore player. I am keeping this on the wishlist though.
Hey look! A city-builder! In Against the Storm you are tasked with building a village not for the benefit of Pops, but for an easily irratated Queen who rules over the last viable land in this fantasy setting. There’s a lot of unique design choices in this game: your workers are of different species and have different specialties where work is concerned. You have to chop down forest to discover hidden glades which can offer resources, recoverable buildings, or evil quests that you must overcome in order to get the benefits. As you build, you must keep your progress ahead of the Queen’s wrath, both of which are tracked on meters at the bottom of the screen. In a lot of ways, this kind of reminded me of Kings Bounty, but I have no idea why. Maybe because Kings Bounty is to RTS what Against the Storm is to city-builders. They both echo examples of more in-depth genres but put a significant spin on the same so they’re not really related, but just kinda feel like that. As building takes place in rounds (you manage multiple build zones) it’s not too hard to knock out the objectives for a single settlement in a single sitting, making Against the Storm a good game to pick when you’re not sure what else to play.
Imma tell you right now that I did not get far in this game, not because it’s difficult, but because I fucked up. Again, this is a city-builder, and again, it’s set in medieval times. In general, there’s not a lot of new ground broken here, but a lot of common city-builder mechanics are sharpened to a fine point. There’s also hints of some kind of larger territorial game, as you are playing the part of the titular “manor lord” who is directing peasants, Anno style (Anno is a common theme this Next Fest, it seems). The game is beautiful and allows you to zoom down to street level where you can practically smell the night soil. Be warned, though: place a wood cutter and not a timber cutter building early on, because the former cuts trees that you need to build, and the latter makes firewood that no one can use if they don’t have buildings.
[Pokes you on the shoulder] Hey…Hey you. Are you tired about hearing how all these games are “like The Expanse”? No? GOOD BECAUSE BUCKLE UP! WE’RE GOIN’ FOR ANOTHER RIDE! Capital Command is a fleet management game with a very minimal CRT-esque UI. The demo starts by helping you figure out navigation via auto-pilot, then allows you to take manual control by firing every single thruster in every single direction known to mankind in whatever future this game occupies (stick with autopilot, seriously). There’s a bit of a tutorial story that ends with your ship and another friendly trying to fight off rogue AI-driven ships. Very much in the vein of The Expanse, moving your ship requires thruster course corrections, attention to thrust vectors, and the Ol’ “turn’n’burn” to decelerate. There are a few things to get used to thanks to a minimal UI, but it’s not difficult at all to get up and running. However, I had to bail because during the final tutorial fight my ship AI just decided to go off on its own, away from the combat, and I could never get within range of the enemy. I could have taken manual control, but the enemies always seemed to outrun me. The game was fun enough up to that point, though.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Scopique downloads a demo of a city-builder and…HEY! Where are you going!? Yes, another city-builder, but this time it’s unda’ da sea (you’re welcome). I really liked this one not just because I have a degree in marine biology, and this is as close as I’m going to get to the underwater life at this stage. Like Manor Lords, I got a real heavy Anno series vibe from Aquatico. It’s pretty polished, the graphics are fantastic, and the variety of challenges are right up there with more mature series. Unfortunately, also like with Manor Lords, I screwed up building placement and wasn’t able to make a connection between two production facilities during the tutorial. Since the tutorial doesn’t allow for the demolishing or moving of buildings, I had to bail, but this one is going to the top of the wishlist for certain.
There’s a whole genre of “shoppe keeper” sims out there; I know most of them as mobile games, but the PC has its fair share (with some overlap). A Hero’s Rest is one of these games, where you are tasked with building a small roadside empire dedicated to furnishing would-be adventurers with everything they need, from weapons and armor to quests to the food and drink that keeps them charged up and ready to slay (or farm). Unlike every other shoppe keeper sim, though, you have to build your own buildings, The Sims style: throw down floors, add walls, doors, multiple levels, maybe, install equipment, and hire or attract employees. Then you get to design stuff like food, quests, and even gear. Quests can be offered so NPCs go harvest materials you need to create items, so you don’t always have to go out yourself to shop for your…shops. You can name weapons, choose their materials, colors, and adornments, and maybe even get bonuses. Sadly, none of this is for you; you have chosen the battlefield of financial solvency as your calling, so all of these custom items are meant to be sold to adventurers, townspeople, and other wandering NPCs. In addition, you’ll be buying multiple plots of land on which to build several buildings; the tutorial asks you to build a small in to serve food, and a blacksmith to produce gear. Later, I would expect that other plots will be needed to create other buildings for producing and offering other goods and services. I really enjoyed this one, though I question the replayability now that I think about it. It seems relatively simple once you get the hang of the loop, but then you get to customize goods and services and I can see this being a very satisfying endorphin dispenser.
I had high hopes for this one based on the Steam videos. There’s ship to ship combat! There’s exploration that reminded me a lot of Starflight, if you could believe it. There’s also ground-based combat with mechs and AI soldiers and tons of lasers and explosions! Unfortunately, the demo didn’t really do it for me. Space combat was kind of meh. Ground combat required a loading transition, and even then, it was at most a 45 second case of “plow ahead and shoot anything that moves until they’re all dead and then back to loading screen”. I’m looking at the screenshots and videos on Steam as I write this, and it all looks pretty cool, so I am not sure if the impression was bad, or if I was just zooming through demos at high speed and wasn’t in the right state of mind to give it fair shake. Maybe if it ends up on deep sale someday and I’m really bored I might give it a shot. It has online co-op, so maybe that’s where the shine happens.
I’m kind of sad about this one. Here, you are an explorer sent to an ecologically devastated Earth to find what happened to a previous crew that dropped off the radar. The rest is more or less typical survival game with energy, food, drink, and illness meters that you have to manage, and reminds me a lot of Subnautica, except instead of being underwater, you travel primarily by airship. The demo starts you in the wreckage of a tall building where a signal is pinging from, and you pick up items and learn about the environment as you go. Just as I got to the point where I could get my airship moving, I died from thirst in, like, 10 seconds of the meter hitting zero. People in the desert don’t even die from dehydration that fast. It’s a shame because it’s a beautiful game with some really cool set pieces, but if it’s going to be that harsh, I’ll pass.
A Few Others
There are a few games I haven’t gotten to yet. Plasma is one. It’s an “engineering simulator” which has you building things from parts, which you can then program using a visual design language. I don’t know what the purpose is quite yet, but I have it installed so I’ll report back if it’s worth talking about.
There is also Inkulinati which has a demo but which I will decidedly not install. I am incredibly intrigued by this game from top to bottom, and I do not want to ruin anything about it ahead of its launch. It’s got that same kind of “WTF” vibe I got from Procession to Cavalry, which is a Good Thing.