Demo Disk — Steam Next Fest, 2022
While I’m grateful for the increased accessibility of games through digital marketplaces, I miss the old days of game shopping. Toy stores and electronic stores, all wired up with their demo game consoles, hocking a few, select wares at a time. Trying to destroy the Death Star in Rogue Leader, or just tapping buttons to one of a few songs on Dance Dance Revolution, attempting (in vain) the mine carts of Donkey Kong Country, hearing Baby Mario’s incessant wailing from across the store in Yoshi’s Island, or trying out this newfangled Wii device with Excitetrucks. I wasn’t always convinced to buy what I tried, but those chances to try something new, for free, just for a little while, stuck with me for a long time.
And now, the future is here. Demo disks that offered three-to-five experiences (with trailers) have long since phased out. Now, you can just download whatever demos spark your curiosity and play at home, no trip to Circuit City necessary. It might lack some of the same fluorescent flair that those old stores from my childhood did, but it’s still nice to have some time carved out for demos. It’s exciting to see what’s on the horizon.
In Steam’s ongoing Next Fest, I blasted through a bunch of interesting-looking demos, some for games I was already interested in, others for games I didn’t know existed. Not all of them stuck, some due to content, or playstyle, some due to my machine not being able to effectively keep up (even after dropping the usual graphical options). Of the eighteen that I gave an honest try to, seven stuck out and either cemented their place on my wishlist or found a new place on it. It’s was already 80+ games long, what’s another few?
Whisker Squadron, by Flippfly LLC
StarFox 64 was one of the hot games growing up in my household; collective delirium when we reached Andross for the first time, more delirium when we defeated the Star Wolf mercenaries, and even more as we uncovered the many secret routes bridging the myriad stages. It didn’t occur to me until much later in my life that there was an original StarFox, back on the Super Nintendo. Whisker Squadron channels a number of those familiar elements that StarFox set the foundation for: animal characters, fast-paced action, and polygonal aesthetic. But it goes a little further, pulling influence from the present’s gaming tastes: rogue-style gauntlets, procedural generation, and resource collection.
Between main, on-rails missions (all procedurally generated, including the bosses), there are free-roam asteroid fields, allowing players to blast asteroids and collect precious resources to keep their ship in shape. These sections, unfortunately, felt like too much of a break between stages. The fields don’t get dangerous, or thrilling, until an amount of time has passed, up until which you’re mindlessly blasting asteroids or getting behind a scant amount of enemies to blast them. After the rush of the on-rails section, it felt like too much of a lull, but I also recognize that’s balancing the rogue-style bend of the game. Still, the momentum feels a bit lost.
Whisker Squadron goes another step by tying all ship power systems together: acceleration and weapons are used by the same power meter. Gone are the days of firing my lasers with reckless abandon, but the additional challenge is novel. It welcomes just an ounce of planning ahead, in a game where every moment can feel critical.
Those moments, the on-rails skirmishes through various locales, are where the game shines thus far. It’s fast-paced, feels challenging, and feels rewarding, both intrinsically when you thread a needle with your ship, and extrinsically when you get a bunch of resources for doing so. It channels some of the best elements of StarFox while still remaining its own entity.
That’s where I’ve been struggling the most: I’m looking for the next StarFox 64. I’m looking for that cheeky, spoken dialogue between pilots, that ship-shaking impact of a hit or a laser blast, the screen-shaking explosions, the secret routes between worlds, the individually-crafted levels that encourage mastery…and that’s my own personal bias. The hard part for me is comparing Whisker Squadron to what I love and what I want, not what it is.
But when I take a second, remove myself from that bias, and realize I still played through the whole demo, by the skin of my teeth, I know there’s a lot of potential. This is a demo, and it’s laying some solid foundation. It might not be StarFox 64, but Whisker Squadron has the makings of something solid, both as a product of its inspirational forebears and as its own, unique creation.
Turbo Overkill, by Trigger Happy Interactive
Do you ever experience a piece of media (a scene, a movie, a game) that tunnels your vision and gives you weird tingles at the base of your skull? Like, your limbic system knows that something is messed up about this, but you’re still so invested in it. That’s Turbo Overkill. It’s Quake, but sci-fi. It’s the OG Doom, but if it got a booster shot of recent Doom. It’s cyberpunk in vibes, and light in the narratives that define cyberpunk. You have a chainsaw leg. Go save the city.
Turbo Overkill operates in that sweet spot just at the threshold of sensory overload, but in a beautiful way. An excess of character movement, animations of enemies, the warping and twisting of the world around you, the explosion of weapons, the whirr of a chainsaw, the laughing walls, it dips its toe in and out of “too much” in the course of any playtime. It is just as much horrifying as it is beautiful.
Gameplay-wise, this is another beautiful inspiration of “the old shooters,” while still being its own thing. No, there’s no reloading. Yes, there’s a story, but you basically have to parse it together from instruction manuals. Yes, there’s an aesthetic, and it’s buck wild. But where old shooters might encourage caution, or distance, and make closed-quarters something to sweat over, Turbo Overkill flips it on its head. Enemies move quickly through arenas and corridors, both large and small, and they take a few hits to put down. No hitscanning here, you’ve got to aim. But when you line it up, the shooting feels good. Punchy, impactful, explosive, from the lowliest magnums to the machiney-est guns. There’s a wide variety of enemies gunning for you, ranging in the usual “fast but weak” to “slower but tougher,” but still presenting their own threats; it channels the old “threat assessment” vibes of Doom and the like.
Where Turbo Overkill shines is its potential for momentum. Your character moves blindingly fast, you have jumps, double-jumps, dashes, mid-air control, and slides. And it’s not just a “get under this pile of rubble”-evasion slide. This is a full-momentum, rocketing forward, chainsaw leg out, “pray you’re not in my way” kind of slide. And it slaps.
But at that speed, it might move too fast for everyone. I might go back and try it on an easier level; I kept dying in a particular section. But if you can match its speed, even for a little while, Turbo Overkill sets up a lot of pins that are begging to be knocked down in the most spectacular and over-the-top way possible.
The Wandering Village, by Stray Fawn Studio
Jumping from Turbo Overkill to The Wandering Village was something of a system reboot. I was particularly excited for this one; it was already on my wishlist when I downloaded the demo. I love city-builders and society managers, a la Frostpunk, and this one stood out just for how much it stood apart from Frostpunk’s vibes.
The Wandering Village takes place in an impending (or ongoing) apocalypse, but it is remarkably and beautifully chill. The villagers meander around, doing their work and gathering their resources. The great creature they’ve settled on top of lumbers through the landscape. The mix of hand-drawn, two-dimensional aesthetics on top of the creature, to the three-dimensional animation of the world around, and the creature itself, is seamless. They work together beautifully.
As with any city-builder and society-manager, The Wandering Village does players the decency of starting small, basically guiding them through a tutorial of making the bedrock of their society. But where the demo shines, and where it cemented my decision to keep it on my wishlist, was in its freedom. Most tutorials in these style games start small and keep players on a rigid path: harvest this, build this, do this next. The Wandering Village has those checkboxes to mark, but it doesn’t hold the leash too tightly. It gives players the freedom to explore, to experiment, to craft out-of-order, and it feels better for it. Players are handed a box of LEGOs and are welcome, if not encouraged, to create whatever they want (given the resources they have) as much as they are to follow the structure laid out by instructions. It works, and it excels.
The Wandering Village is relaxing, beautiful, and hopeful, despite the circumstances of the world it plays in, and despite the kind of game it is. Is it also an allegory for taking care of where we live as much as we take care of each other? Maybe. But regardless of how deep you look into it, The Wandering Village has the makings of a great citybuilder, and a great game.
Where the Heart Leads, by Armature Studio
I always tell people that I meet that I love stories. I often preface that as games, as movies, as TV shows, yes, but they quickly learn it also means their stories. I love hearing how people are brought to where they are in their life, through decisions or circumstances, trials and traumas. I love to be their first audience. I love hearing autobiographies that are still in the making. And that’s what made me love Where the Heart Leads to the point where I stopped playing mid-demo, because I knew I would be invested, and I knew I would want to experience more.
Whit’s story in Where the Heart Leads is a simple one, but a familiar one. This isn’t a groundbreaking story, or a world-shattering narrative, this is just a guy recounting his life. Someone remembering decisions he made, same kinds of decisions that we’ve made, hundreds of small decisions that ripple out to impact others, and return to impact us in some way. It’s a game of little choices that still feel important, but are a far cry away from the choices we’ve made in games like this before. There’s no “who lives and who dies” like in Telltale’s library, or relationship-defining choices like in Dontnod’s experiences. It’s deciding whether to garden with your father, or go play with your brother. It’s asking his brother for help, or finding your way out of a mess on your own. It’s comforting your children with potential lies, or preparing them for a potential truth. It’s the kind of person you decide to be in one of millions of moments with your partner. It’s all the little choices that lead us to wherever we are in our lives.
Where the Heart Leads has the trappings of a framework the likes of which I haven’t experienced yet. No end-of-episode “how many players made what choices,” no world-shattering cliffhangers, just…life. Life, and the many ways that it can spiderweb out. Little impacts, little consequences, on a small scale. On a scale we know. A story in the most minute way, told in the most beautiful way.
Also, the art style works. Unique, but familiar. Funky, yet comfortable. Surreal, and relaxing. It’s a story we’re all living in our own ways, told in a way that can resonate with a great many people.
IXION, by Bulwark Studios
City-building, but in space? Oooh, yes sir. I don’t shy away from how much I love space, its possibilities, its aesthetic, and I love when games give me the opportunity to go exploring in them. IXION throws you right into the mix with beautiful, stage-setting cutscenes, and then tells you to get to work. That work is familiar: you have the supplies, now get a foothold. Build living spaces, resource managers, connect to the resources you have available. The demo operates as a full-blown prologue to the planned game: administering an orbital space station in preparation for a jump to the Alpha Centauri system.
It’s more of what any city-builder would expect in a demo or tutorial level, somewhere between the freedom felt in The Wandering City and the more traditional “do this in this order” vibes of traditional city-builders. Some elements could be confusing, or not make sense at first pass (even with an active tutorial), but nothing was so detracting as to make me want to stop playing. The strangest hurdle was wondering why my crew wasn’t taking advantage of the pile of food on the station, before I realized I didn’t have a designated storage depot for said food; built depot, designated for food, problem solved. Otherwise, it was all smooth sailing, on a gameplay level. The flow was consistent; I didn’t feel the need to speed up the clock nor pause it too frequently.
IXION hits on familiar vibes with its stagesetting: Earth is on a fast-track to self-destruction in the wake of climate crises, and international organizations like the fictional DOLOS have a plan for persevering. It is simultaneously painful to see stories acknowledge the overwhelming potential for our own self-destruction, but also see the more hopeful elements of international cooperation. Even in the face of extinction, it’s nice to have settings where humanity comes together.
Where Bulwark Studios specifically shone was the cliffhanger ending of the prologue. I’ll only say, I audibly gasped and was stunned. It immediately sold me on what it meant for the game, for its mechanics, and how much things were about to open up as a result. It was a power move, to be sure, but it worked. I’m excited to see where IXION goes from here, and more excited to experience it myself.
Glitchhikers: The Spaces Between, by Silverstring Media Inc.
Glitchhikers is a game, in that it’s controlled by player input. But it feels more like an experience, as any challenge is really derived internally. There’s no easy way to describe it. There are choices, but not the choices we’re used to in games. There are conversations, but, similarly, not about the world or its characters, but about life. Those conversations arise in the form of travel: the demo showcases driving, riding the train, and walking, all in the calming dim of nighttime.
As someone who appreciates travel and appreciates conversation, it hits different. The quiet between words feels contemplative, not silent. Glitchhikers can be difficult, but not in a way that people think of when they play games. Again, these are conversations about life, of the little elements that make it up. If players really engage, really think about their answers and where they’re coming from, it can be difficult grappling with that. And that’s okay.
But on that vein, props to Silverstring. Out of the gate, there are no consequences for backing out of conversations or sections. Those talks aren’t for everyone all the time.
Glitchhikers is an intimate, personal experience, even in its early stages like this. I wishlisted it some time ago, intrigued by what it was showing. This short time traveling was enough to solidify its place. There’s so much to be said about it, but that would only show my experience. All I can do is encourage you to explore it, and find what it means to you.
Witching Hour, by Vincent Lade
Lastly, in my perpetual foolishness, I decided to end my run on a horror note. Witching Hour sets the stage quickly and looses players on a sliver of a larger world, begging to be explored in a game of hide and seek.
To the point that I’ve played, the game relies on dread, not jump scares. Slowly opening doors, hanging silence save for your footsteps, unexplained décor…there’s no running around and trying to avoid unstoppable monsters (yet), just being scared that something is bound to pop up. When it does, even though it posed no threat to me, my entire body locked up. Heart-stopping, folding inward, deep breath locked up. Fantastic.
Unlike the esoteric puzzles of the recent wave of horror games, Witching Hour’s approach feels more direct. There are puzzles, but there are the means to solving the puzzles in your immediate area, and there’s no mistaking their clues. Tarot cards will always throw me for a loop, but that’s on me. The spaces (so far) are small, manageable, and still engaging, instead of massive sprawls full of winding corridors and twisting halls. I love and prefer this approach, instead of struggling in an open space for that one solution that’s so easy to walk by. Witching Hour excels in the small-scale, the intentional, instead of a senseless scope I’ve seen too many times before.
I still need to revisit Witching Hour and properly finish the demo, but I’ve loved what I’ve found so far. Unsettling atmosphere, beautiful graphic novel-adjacent animation, palpable dread. Exactly what I’ve been hoping for in a horror experience lately.