With large scale events looking to be on hold for some time yet, many convention-goers like myself are feeling somewhat of a void inside. A touch of emptiness. Aside from the social and creativity aspects, cons also gives us a chance to trial games we wouldn’t normally get to anywhere else. The minute I’ve gotten my bearings at a convention, my first thought will always be “Right, which cool demos should I play first?” So, as Summer Solstice grew closer, Steam decided to amplify those bright summer fuzzies by bringing that part of a convention to us: The Steam Game Festival (Summer Edition)!

This festival ran from Tuesday 16th to Monday 22nd June 2020, showcasing demos of games releasing in the next year and giving developers the opportunity to present their projects to a worldwide audience. Numerous developers also held live streams of gameplay, Q&A sessions and in depth breakdowns for all to join. Many games were still in the alpha/pre-alpha stage of development. However, from the ones I sampled, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’re ready for launch. Such was the quality. The variety of visual styles too was interesting to see; hyperrealism, while undoubtedly impressive, was definitely in a minority. Being very much in the camp of “mind-blowing graphics do not a good game make”, this suited me to a tee.

Overall it was like walking through Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders, but being free to touch, inspect and ask questions about the treasures around you. A gamer’s dream. EGX, eat your heart out!

So, having put away my magnifying glass and tweezers for the week, here are 3 of my certified gems from this exhibition of treasures. 2 of them are also slated for console releases; no reason for the “PC Master Race” to have all the fun!


GESTALT: STEAM & CINDER

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Having followed this game from Sold Out and Metamorphosis Games for a few months, I was pleased to see this high on the list of demos and eager to get my hands on it. Boy, did it not disappoint! Gestalt: Steam & Cinder is a 2D pixel platformer RPG, inspired by the 16 and 32 bit metroidvanias of yesteryear but celebrating the epic RPGs of modern gaming.

You step into the tight leather boots of Aletheia, a ‘Soldner’ mercenary waking from a month-long coma with strange abilities and trying to uncover the steam-powered city of Canaan’s conspiracies. And earn good coin along the way. As soon as you have control and wander around the city, the first thing that strikes you is the art design. The steampunk pixel art environments are nothing short of stunning! Each building and landmark is carefully placed and finely detailed, the dimensions of the streets behind the 2D plane drawing your eye to what lies beyond. This level of care is also present in the character animations and controls; Aletheia’s animation is smooth and fluid, her control responsive. Every frame is like a work of art.

Combat is also slick and engaging, a mix of sword and gunplay, easy to pick up and tricky to master. Each enemy has a different move set which requires you to change tactics on the fly and combine different combos to bring them down. But through combat comes experience. Experience you can distribute via the levelling system. Split into 5 recognisable RPG stats, you will need to distribute your EXP carefully to best reflect your play strengths and make sure Aletheia stays alive to kick ass another day.

While some of the lore is a little difficult to grasp in the short play time, the otherworldy immersion is off the scale and you quickly find yourself wanting to know more about Canaan’s residents, its culture, what makes it tick.

For a pre-alpha demo, this was insanely good and a joy to play. Like its leading lady, it’s beautiful, slick and packs a punch. If Timespinner or Iconoclasts met your metroidvania needs but you wanted more RPG vibes and grit, this is for you. Get it wishlisted!

PLANNED RELEASE DATE: 2020
PLATFORMS: PC, Mac, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch.


NINE NOIR LIVES

⭐⭐⭐⭐

My first sample from the adventure genre combines two things I love: film noir and cats. And I am now imagining Casablanca with a cast of cats. Catablanca, if you will.

“Of all the water bowls in all the kitchens in all the houses, she walks into mine.” 

Genius.

Nine Noir Lives is a “point & lick” comedy-noir adventure game from Silvernode Studios. Yes I know how that sounds, come back! You are Cuddles Nutterbutter, feline private investigator to the capital city of cats: Meow Meow Furrington. Aided by your plucky assistant Tabby Marshmallow, you are plunged deep into a murder investigation concerning two rival gangs, the Montameeuws and the Catulets, which they will have to get to the heart of before someone takes it into their own paws.

This charming little number is a hilarious homage to all the point & click, film noir and cat tropes you can think of. Your mouse pointer is…well…a mouse! Inner narration is now outer narration done through a tape recorder Cuddles dubs ‘Ramon’. A strip joint’s special is scratch pole dancing. “Point & lick”? Not just a questionable pun. It’s an actual way to interact with objects! Licking an item can help you learn more about it and how it might be important. Or just how disgusting a couch cushion really tastes.

The dialogue is superbly witty and dripping with charm, due in equal measure to the great writing and the exceptional performances of Cuddles and Tabby’s voice actors. For the short length of the demo, the opening was a little too dialogue-heavy, which slowed down the pace and left less space for puzzle-solving. However, according to the developer, this has already been made snappier and it should be reflected in its next build when the next festival comes around.

Nine Noir Lives shows a huge amount of promise and family friendly fun in its short play time. For adventure game lovers, it looks set to tick all the boxes. And what cat doesn’t love boxes?

PLANNED RELEASE DATE: H1 2021
PLATFORMS: PC, Mac, Linux


BACKBONE

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Keeping with the anthropomorphic P.I. but going back to the pixel art style with this one. Backbone is a noir detective adventure game from EggNut and Raw Fury Games set in dystopian Vancouver populated by animals. Raccoon P.I. Howard Lotor is trying to make his way in the authoritarian regime, solving petty disputes and misunderstandings for peanuts. Sometimes literally. Until he takes a case from concerned wife Odette Green.

Unlike Nine Noir Lives, Backbone is much darker and grittier in its tone. Definitely not one for the family. However, like Gestalt, the environments are immediately striking; the decaying streets and seedy brightly lit buildings are superbly detailed, while 3D effects such as dynamic lighting and water reflection further breathe life into this godforsaken city. All the while, the deep jazz and cinematic ambience of the soundtrack plays, punctuating every step of your journey. Beauty in ugliness.

Players can opt for keyboard & mouse or controller to navigate Howard; I chose the latter. Along with solving puzzles and asking questions, stealth is needed to investigate areas you shouldn’t be in and avoid getting a beating or worse from patrolling thugs. One slip and you’re lunch meat! So that extra bit of control is essential and the movement is nice and slick. However, during conversations, the A button can be a little too sensitive, causing you to skip over bits of dialogue. Although this may purely be a bug which will be ironed out in further development. Here’s hoping, as conversation truly is the backbone of this venture.

Backbone takes inspiration from great CRPGS like Baldur’s Gate and Shadowfall with extensive branching dialogue trees. Each of Howard’s responses shapes the way the conversation flows, evolving every time. No stock responses or dialogue loops here which is very refreshing! This lends an organic feel to the characters and conversations; each interaction feels intuitive and reactionary, enhancing the immersion further. If Howard asks a client how his wife and kids are, he won’t suddenly say “I’m looking for someone” in the next sentence!

Noir is definitely making a comeback with Backbone at the forefront. And with its dark overtones, stellar writing and top notch immersion, it’s set to be one hell of a comeback!

PLANNED RELEASE DATE: 2021
PLATFORMS: PC, Mac, Linux, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch