There’s something inherently magical about Autumn. The crispness of the air, the changing colours, the atmosphere of transformation – elements of a season of change. Loose summer layers are exchanged for thick cosy accoutrements and ice cold cocktails in the sun for mugs of hot chocolate by a fire. Or hot cocktails if you add rum to it. Grab a tiki mug, whipped cream and give it a fancy name: boom! But it is also the perfect season for virtual magic. As well as AAA releases, it is also a sweet spot for indie games to come into their power and show us what they’ve got. And where better to get a taste for virtual indie magic than the Steam Game Festival: Autumn Edition.

Like the summer incarnation before it, the festival ran for 7 days (7th – 13th October) and showcased demos from games with a 2020/2021 release date. These demos were again accompanied by livestreams and Q&A sessions with the developers which all were free to join and be a part of. All the elements of a magical convocation without leaving that cosy fire. Having unearthed some gems in the Summer Festival previously, I was of course all ready for Round 2. So make yourself a “Cocoa Especia” and get comfy. Here are my top 3 picks from the Steam Game Festival: Autumn Edition 2020.


INCANTAMENTUM

⭐⭐⭐⭐

This title caught my eye a month or so before the festival. Being a huge fan of point & click pixel art adventure games, my curiosity was instantly piqued. So you can imagine my excitement to see it listed in the festival demo lineup. Down I swooped like a hungry falcon.

Developed and published by Cloak and Dagger Games, Incantamentum is a narrative-driven adventure game set in Victorian England, in the isolated moorland village of Bewlay. Barrow-digger Thomasina Bateman receives a letter from a gentleman inviting her to Bewlay to excavate Hob’s Barrow, a well-known landmark among the locals and steeped in village history. She accepts the invitation and journeys to Bewlay, however she soon discovers that there is more to this excavation and this simple country village than meets the eye.

From the opening segment, I was living for the pixel art design of this game. The environmental and lighting effects are beautifully evocative; late-night fog spreads across the screen broken by the glow of the streetlamps as Thomasina walks towards a gated stately home, rain pattering on her umbrella. These small details are prevalent throughout the demo, ever adding to the atmosphere of Thomasina’s surroundings. The character animations are also beautifully smooth and even the pixelated mouth movements seemed to perfectly match their lines. While the demo is not voiced, the writing is exceptional, from the conversations to the cutscenes; no character’s words seem out of place or unnatural. It even pokes fun at a well-worn point & click trope: ask a random person you just met a personal question, they’ll tell you to mind your own business or get lost. As you would under those circumstances. Even more so if you were a citizen living in the 19th century. Most improper! Puzzles are also logical and intuitive, particularly during the dialogue segments; a response that seems extreme may in fact work in your favour.

Incantamentum is described as “a dark and complex story featuring interwoven elements from English folklore” and even in a scene as simple as entering a dark restroom or looking out onto the dark moors, you can feel this intensely. The combination of beautifully utilised lighting and details coupled with the stellar writing and pacing evoke the atmosphere of those tales told in hushed voices over a tankard, making even the bravest feel uneasy. And pixel point & click lovers like me feel engrossed. Count me in!

PLANNED RELEASE DATE: 2021
PLATFORMS: PC


XUAN-YUAN SWORD VII

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Relatively unknown in the Western hemisphere, the Taiwanese ARPG series Xuan-Yuan Sword by SOFTSTAR Entertainment has been a mainstay for Chinese gamers since 1991. Rooted in the “Shenmo” (神魔) and “Wuxia” (武侠) Chinese fiction genres, it blends martial arts with Chinese mythology and magic. And the latest installment Xuan-Yuan Sword VII looks set to bring this blend to the West in style – one of only 2 titles in the series to have a Western release. Big Chinese history and mythology buff over here, so naturally this turned my head.

Xuan-Yuan Sword VII tells the tale of Taishi Zhao, a warrior-for-hire on a quest to keep his younger sister Xiang safe and find out the truth behind his tragic past. Zhao’s story takes place at the fall of the Han Empire; the Emperor has been usurped, causing civil and celestial unrest and a prophecy goes unfulfilled. Monsters begin to run amok and two worlds are threatened to be plunged into chaos and ruin.

As soon as you have control, you’ll find yourself drawing natural comparisons to The Witcher with its interface and gameplay. However I personally found this to be so much smoother and more intriguing – what I originally hoped The Witcher would be like. Call me a heathen! Combat is in real time and silky smooth, combos are fluid and simple to perform. You can choose a wide variety of stances, styles and maneuvers for Zhao to suit your personal combat style and adapt to different kinds of enemies. Graphically too, Sword VII is very impressive; the motion capture animations are slick and realistic and the environments beautifully detailed. But, like any story-driven RPG, characters and interaction are also at the forefront and given careful attention. Zhao’s bond with sister Xiang, his childhood memories and his relationships with friends and employers are all explored through cutscenes and conversations, aided by very well executed English subtitles. The demo ends on an ambiguous note, linking an earlier flashback to present-day events, but leaving many questions in the player’s mind. Questions that beg playing more to answer.

Xuan-Yuan Sword VII is set for release on October 29th and looks more than ready to take the West by storm. A great blend of fast-paced combat, beautiful landscapes and magical mystery, it has all the elements to give Geralt of Rivia a run for his money. And I am all kinds of okay with this!

PLANNED RELEASE DATE: 29th October 2020
PLATFORMS: PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One.


ENCODYA

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Double acts have become a draw for me in adventure games, ever since discovering the Blackwell series by Wadjet Eye Games. Controlling two characters who rely on one another and help each other with tasks the other cannot complete is a great exploration of close relationships, whether the two characters get along or not. So Encodya was naturally going to be on my list to try out.

Encodya is a 2.5D point-and-click adventure game based on the short film “Robot Will Protect You”, developed by Chaosmonger Studio and published by Assemble Entertainment. Set in futuristic dystopian city Neo-Berlin controlled by corporations, you take control of 9 year old orphan Tina and her robot guardian SAM-53, programmed to look after and protect her no matter what. But nicely. Less Bioshock Big Daddy, more Iron Giant. His programming forbids destroying public property. Tina and SAM get by through scavenging dumpsters around the city and finding scraps, ever-hoping that one day their luck will change for the better.

The game goes for a classic crosshair cursor and coin interface for interacting, similar to The Curse of Monkey Island. Each coin depicts a different verb such as ‘pick up’ or ‘talk’, the images on the coins changing when you switch from Tina to SAM – a nice touch! Puzzle-solving is coherent and just the right level of difficulty: not too tricky or too simple. The animation style is quirky and endearing, slightly reminiscent of Jimmy Neutron but with comic book-esque edges. Don’t let the aesthetic fool you, though. Some of the dialogue is very much at the higher end of the PG scale. Speaking of which, the protagonists’ voices are wonderfully on point. Tina and SAM’s relationship shines through, even in the smallest nuances. For instance, in SAM’s inventory there is an umbrella and a cup of hot chocolate. Upon examining them, SAM tells you the umbrella is to keep Tina dry and he is keeping the hot chocolate warm for her. Try and give them to Tina, she says “Thank you, but I don’t need it right now.” Cue feeling all warm and fuzzy inside! Breaking away from the typical kid-on-the-streets vibe of being constantly rude or abrasive, Tina is mostly very polite and well-mannered; listening to SAM’s manner and speech, it appears he has taken exceptional care of her under the circumstances. 

Initially created for the game’s Kickstarter campaign, the demo’s dialogue contains a lot of meta references to it and fourth wall breaks which are rather fun though will be less prevalent in the final product. The inclusion of the old lady “Fatemancer” character was also a very creative and fun way to showcase more of the game has to offer through her “visions”. Beats an end-of-demo trailer any day! The only notable downside of the demo was the loading times when leaving locations – not excessively lengthy but common and did begin to grate after a while. Hopefully this will be fixed on release.

An enjoyable adventure with wholesomely likeable leads, Encodya shows a huge amount of promise. And with its setting slowly being not so far-fetched, its feel-good vibes coupled with large helpings of wit, sass and friendship could be just the thing we all need right now!

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