Despite the fact that we don’t have an official E3 this year, it’s been nice to have a steady stream of game reveals and trailers during the month of June. While I love seeing fresh looks at highly anticipated games, it’s always frustrating to know you won’t be getting hands-on time with them for quite a while. That’s where Steam Next Fest comes into play.
From June 13 to June 20, they run a celebration of upcoming games where they highlight over a thousand demos that are available right now. Obviously, that’s a lot of games to wade through, making it hard to find what’s worth it and what’s not. I took some time going through demos, and here are six that left me eagerly anticipating their release.
New Blood is best known as the publisher of throwback, fast-paced shooters like Dusk, Amid Evil and Ultrakill, but what happens when they focus their retro sensibilities on the immersive sim genre? Gloomwood is best summed up as Thief, with guns (that’s even the URL) combined with a hearty dash of survival horror. You play as a doctor who sneaks his way through a dark, Victorian city stalked by the city’s strange residents and even stranger creatures.
Even with this older demo (released last year), the attention to detail in the game is immediately apparent. The level design is spot on for the genre, providing you with many paths and secret passages to make your way through the city how you want. The stealth system relies on both light and noise, and the game gives you a fun arsenal to play with when you do have to go loud. The chunkier, old school visuals create a moody atmosphere that bleeds into every corner of the game. Even the quit screen has personality, asking you if you want to “abandon this wretched town?” If the demo grabs you, you fortunately don’t have long to wait. Gloomwood is scheduled to hit Early Access on August 16.
Space horror definitely seemed to be having a moment at this year’s Summer Games Fest, but Signalis still manages to stand out from the crowd thanks to a great visual identity and strong gameplay to back it up. The game follows an android who awakens from stasis in an abandoned off-world space station and finds it crawling with terrifying creatures. The visuals are a mix of anime-style cutscenes with blocky PS1-style 3D models, giving it a unique look even among other titles inspired by the same era.
Despite the fact that it plays from a room-by-room top down perspective, it is definitely influenced by classic Resident Evil-style game design. Lots of old school puzzles that involve examining objects and fiddling with slightly confusing interfaces to turn on strange machines. Occasionally the game will switch to first person, allowing you to poke around and interact with the gorgeous retro futuristic environments. The developers list the works of Stanley Kubrick, Hideaki Anno and David Lynch among their inspirations, which makes me very intrigued by where the story could go from the end of the demo. The full game is scheduled for release on October 27.
Another space horror demo featured in Next Fest is the co-op shooter Ripout, which seems to sit at a cross section between The Thing and Alien, with a little bit of Videodrome thrown into the mix. You and two other players blast your way through procedurally generated ships full of strange bio-organic mutants that are constantly reconfiguring themselves. To fight them, you have a living gun that you can send out to retrieve alien components that can be integrated into your arsenal.
The demo is definitely rough around the edges, the janky stairs and slow moving speed hamper a lot of my enjoyment, but there’s a ton of promise if they can smooth things out. The core premise of incorporating bio-organic alien parts into yourself for combat is so strong, and the art direction of the game matches it. If having weird TV headed dog-like creatures jumping out of giant piles of meat and monitors sounds like a good time to you, grab some buddies and try this one out. Hopefully feedback from this demo can help the team at Pet Project Games polish this into something really special.
THE FRIDGE IS RED
I’m always surprised at how underutilized the anthology format is in the world of video games. Sometimes the sweet spot for horror experiences is around 30-60 minutes, so it makes sense for developers to assemble a collection of shorts into one great package. It’s clear from the demo of The Fridge is Red that developer 5WORD Team have a strong sense of the stories they want to tell and the skill to pull them off. This demo features two stories, one brief and one around 25 minutes, but both equally surreal.
The first is a strange, menacing twist on a hidden object game where you are looking around a room for letter shaped magnets while the titular fridge shuffles towards you every time you avert your gaze from it. It’s a strong opening that sets the vibe for the collection right off the bat. The second tale is a bit longer, starting with some eerie office horror, moving into one of the best creepy elevator sequences I’ve seen, ending with a long and winding trip through the bowels of the building. It’s not perfect, the level can be a bit confusing to navigate, but it’s clear that their focus on liminal spaces and analogue horror is a winning combination.
CULT OF THE LAMB
After Hades, I’ve become a sucker for a good roguelike. Cult of the Lamb, by developer Massive Monster and publisher Devolver Digital, takes the moment to moment gameplay of games like Hades and combines it with base building and crafting mechanics similar to those in Animal Crossing, wrapped in a cute-but-creepy presentation reminiscent of The Binding of Isaac. You play a lamb who is saved from ritual sacrifice by an otherworldly being. In order to repay your debt, you do the only reasonable thing: start a cult.
The combination of these different genres may seem like a strange fit, but the choices made along your procedurally generated paths help the sections feed into each other. You may need a certain resource for your base, which makes the choice between that resource and a valuable combat upgrade all the more compelling. Combat feels quick and snappy, even if the demo didn’t quite give me a full idea of the build possibilities that the full game will offer, with a fun boss fight to cap it off. The unique melding of subgenres and fun art style has me looking forward to its August 11 release date.
MY FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD
Five Nights at Freddy’s proved there’s something creepy about warping innocent childhood images, and My Friendly Neighborhood takes that concept and applies it to a Saturday morning puppet show. You’re trapped on the set of Sesame Street gone bad, chased by creepy puppets that won’t stop trying to murder you. For a horror game, it’s completely absent of gore, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a terrifying mood throughout.
Developers John and Evan Szymanski have polished everything beautifully, right down to the color-coded map, creating a presentation that’s equal parts whimsy and menace. Tight inventory management, clever puzzles and even classic door opening loading screens all give it a classic feel within a modern framework. I had just as much fun decoding a circle/triangle/square punch card puzzle as I did sneaking past the sinisterly rambling puppets. At one point I had two taped up next to each other, using a precious resource to keep them down permanently, and they were both ranting, telling me how I could learn to count by shoving my fist down my throat. I was initially hesitant going into this one, thinking it would rely too heavily on its gimmick, but it ended up being a well-designed experience that I can’t wait to get more of.
What demos do you recommend from this year’s Steam Next Fest? Sound off in the comments below!