Monday, June 21, 2021

Speed Dating : Steam Next Fest

Thanks to the hard cutoff at the end of the Swords of Legends Online demo, I found time last night to do what I'd meant to do all along: download some single-player demos to try. I didn't have either the time or the energy to comb through the plethora of short sales pitches in Steam's Next Fest, particularly given the delight the platform seems to to take in stuffing most the entries into all of the categories, but I gave it a few minutes and pulled out a handful of choice-looking plums. Then I played through all of them.

Well, kind of. Let's say I pressed Play on all of them. That's true enough. Of the six demos I downloaded, so far I've only finished one but I've seen enough for a bullet point or two. That's about all you can expect from a demo anyway. Here they are in order of time played.

This looked right up my street: "A blend of classic point-and-click adventure with immersive cinematography. Embody the witty protagonist of a film noir plot. Meet unforgettable characters. Solve puzzles. Lose yourself in the retro-futuristic atmosphere". The screenshots looked stylish. I was itching to get started.

It wouldn't play. At all. Clicked the buttons, nothing happened. I tried restarting a few times but no joy. Turns out in my excitement to play I'd missed one key factor: "The Secret of Retropolis is a VR narrative game."Ah! That explains it. My bad. Next! 


Okay, this was a gamble. "Catie in MeowmeowLand is a classical humorous point-and-click adventure game. Help little Catie get back home from the bizarre cat world of MeowmeowLand!" Could go either way. The screenshots looked inviting and unusual, like stills from a child's picture-book. I had high hopes although the word "humorous" in the description of any video game always rings alarm bells.

Within seconds of logging in I was fairly sure it wasn't for me. The same art that looks good in screenshots looks awkward and uncomfortable in game. Nothing wrong with it, just not my thing. The visuals would have been manageable if the gameplay had been to my taste but "point-and-click adventure" clearly means something very different to whoever wrote the blurb than it does to me.

Much more of a known quantity, this one. "A whimsical puzzle-adventure game set in the world of the bestselling Redwall books. In this third and final episode, seeking escape from Cheesfthief you find yourself beholden to a family of mysterious Stoats who may or may not be carnivores..." Based on a much-loved series of children's' books and the third installment of an established spin-off series of video games. Should be fine, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. The Redwall series looks like the kind of thing I like but in fact I have never been fond of it. I don't much like Brian Jacques' prose style and when I did try and read one of the books I didn't much like some of the concepts and philosophy either. Still, it's talking animals having adventures and solving puzzles. How bad could it be?

Not very bad. Just rough around the edges and uncomfortable to play. It opens with a lengthy cut scene in which the characters watch a stage play and catch each other up on the plot. I counted four typos in the captions. There may have been more but some of the text was on and off the screen far too fast for me to read it. 


After that it was into the game proper. Movement was floaty. I changed the settings several times but it never felt right. The developers have gone for full immersion with almost no instructions and no visible UI at all. Most of the twenty-four minutes I spent with the demo went on trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing and which keys I needed to press to do it. By the time I'd worked that out I'd also decided I didn't care. 

About the only thing I liked were the character portraits and associated text. Those were nicely done. The "Scent" system, whereby the mice identify and find things by smell is original in concept but in execution doesn't seem all that much different to any other "Press key to see things light up" mechanic. To be fair, I didn't play long enough to be able to tell if there was more to it than that. And I'm not going to. Pass.

Okay, this is more like it. "The Season of the Warlock is a weird adventure game inspired by the gothic tale tradition, with two storylines to choose from. The soul of a warlock of yore, trapped in a portrait, will present Lord Alistair Ainsworth with an offer he will not be able to resist. Or will he? It’s your call..." Looks good, sounds solid. "Weird" is a tad worrying but let's give it a go...

I liked this one. It's a straightforward point-and-click adventure in the way I understand the term. You walk around inspecting things, pocketing things, talking to people and solving puzzles. The descriptions you get when you inspect things are amusing, the things you pick up are logical, the people you talk to are characterful and the puzzles you have to solve are manageable. 


And it's funny. Not laugh out loud funny but wry smile funny. The jokes land, most of the time, and there aren't too many of them. Nothing feels desperate or forced which is more than I can say of "funny fantasy" games in general. I was a bit doubtful of some of the historical research (Did they have toy poodles with pompom cuts in the 1840s?) but it seems a bit pointless to quibble over historical accuracy when the basic premise involves a five-hundred year old warlock who can only communicate by way of an oil painting.

The visuals were very impressive throughout, rich and detailed with a tactile depth to them. The UI and the controls, always crucial to the success of a point-and-click adventure, felt well-designed and natural. I'd have gone on playing this one for a lot longer if I hadn't come to an actual "Game Over" screen. I haven't wishlisted it yet but I might. 

  • Lake - Minutes Played: Seventy-Eight (78) so far. Incomplete. Still playing.

I didn't know what this was going to be but it looked intriguing. "It's 1986 - Meredith Weiss takes a break from her career in the big city to deliver mail in her hometown. How will she experience two weeks in beautiful Providence Oaks, with its iconic lake and quirky community? And what will she do next? It's up to you." After nearly an hour and half I still don't know what this game is and I'm still intrigued.

It's a walking sim, I know that much. I mean it literally, too. Most of the gameplay consists of driving around the small, lakeside town of Providence Oaks, the town where you grew up and which you left over twenty years ago. You're in your dad's postal delivery van. You have letters and parcels for houses and businesses marked on your map. You get out the van, walk up to the mailbox, drop in the letter, get back in the van and drive on. If there's a parcel you walk around to the rear of the van, open the doors, take out the parcel, walk to the door of the house and ring the bell. 


When you've delivered everything you take the van back to the post office and go back to your parental home for the evening. Your folks are vacationing in Florida and you've agreed to cover your dad's mail route while he's away. At least I think that's the deal. He could be retired. He's definitely not dead. The phone might ring. It could be your mom. It could be your boss. You talk on the phone then watch TV or read a book. In the morning you wake up, go to the post office, get back in the van and do it all again.

All of this you're doing in your vacation time. You have a real job. You're a coder. You just finished a product. Some business program. It hasn't shipped yet. Your boss doesn't seem to understand vacation time so he's calling you at home and sending you promotional copy to work on. There's some sense of tension there. It is a program, not an app, too. This is all happening in 1986.


I didn't read anything on the Steam page before I played this. I was completely at sea for the first half hour. I kept waiting for a plot to develop. It never did. The visuals were so beautiful and the gameplay so relaxing, so immersive, after a while I stopped caring what it was "supposed" to be and just fell into what it was. 

Driving the van is easy and fun. The radio plays, intermittently, and the songs are perfectly suited to the setting. As you deliver mail you meet people from your past and chat with them. Sometimes they ask you to do something for them. I took a lady's cat to a guy on the shore who runs a bait store because she thought the cat was sick and the guy is the nearest thing in the town to a vet. I had a conversation in the video store that felt like it might have been flirting but might just as well not. I had an awkward conversation with my best friend from school, who I'd not seen for twenty years.


I really like Lake. It's one of those games that indie devs seem so keen on making that feel to me like living inside a graphic novel from the eighties or nineties, something by Harvey Pekar or Daniel Clowes. Only with even less plot. The more games like this I play, the more I want to play. 

I'll finish the demo for sure. I'm curious to see how long it is, for one thing. I've already done three days' delivery and I'm only supposed to be there for two weeks. Seems like I've seen a substantial chunk of the game already. Lake is on my wishlist now and I highly recommend the demo. It's almost a game in itself.

  •  Sable - Minutes Played: Eighty (80). Incomplete. Restart needed.

This had the most striking screenshots of all the demos and a description to match. "Embark on a unique and unforgettable journey and guide Sable through her Gliding; a rite of passage that will take her across vast deserts and mesmerizing landscapes, capped by the remains of spaceships and ancient wonders." Sounds great but what about the gameplay? I was nervous.

I needn't have been. This was probably my favorite although it's a close call between Sable and Lake. The graphics are exceptional and they work even better in game than they do in stills. The color palette drives the heat in the day and brings a chill at night. The style has a luxuriant minimalism that evokes sixties and seventies bandes dessinées. I could sense the aesthetic of movies like Barbarella and Dune somewhere in the background.


Great graphics in a video game mean nothing if I can't control my character. I was a little worried this was going to be some kind of platformer or jumping game. I don't get on with those as a rule. Sable begins with your character in a desert ruin. With only the most minimal of instruction you're left to figure out what to do next and yes, it does involve climbing, jumping, crawling and all those things.

Joyously, Sable also has some of the most natural movement controls I've run across since I first played Genshin Impact. Jumping, gliding, climbing, riding your sand-bike... everything just feels easy and intuitive. The only real problem I had was a slight tendency towards motion sickness as I careened around the landscape, hurling myself off  high places, spinning the camera with abandon. My fault, not the game's.


The demo consists of the opening sequence of what looks like it's going to turn into a young girl's rite  of passage: a walkabout in the desert to come to know herself except the desert is on another planet and the walking is actually riding a hoverbike. Unfortunately, the guy who was supposed to source and build the bike had other things on his mind and forgot so you're going to have to build it yourself. But before you can do that you need to go scavenge the parts from some crashed spaceships...

I mean, come on! Aren't you sold already? I am! It's a melding of very traditional rpg gameplay with parkour-lite movement in service of a classic bildungsroman narrative. The writing is good, too, and there's just the right amount of dialog. It's so nice to play a game that says just as much as it needs to say and no more.


I had just one problem with the Sable demo and it's a very unusual one: I couldn't find any way to save my progress. I was so immersed I played my eighty minutes without even thinking about saving and then Mrs. Bhagpuss called lunch. I searched for a save function and couldn't find one so I took the only logout option I could find, assuming the game would autosave and it didn't. There's no save function of any kind as far as I can tell. Start a new game is the only choice.

I think I was probably very close to the end. I'm guessing the demo finishes when you build your bike and I had two of the three parts. I just needed to figure out how to get some beetles to bribe the horrible child who'd hidden the last part and I'm guessing that would have been that. Even so, it was annoying not to be able to come back after lunch and finish what I'd started. 

I certainly don't mind going through the whole thing again but I'll have to be sure of not being interrupted for a couple of hours when I do. Not as easy you'd think. I've wishlisted Sable so I might just leave it until it comes out to start over.

Both Sable and Lake are due to arrive in finished form in September. With Bless Unleashed and New World due in August and quite possibly End of Dragons around the same time it's more than likely my wishlist won't be seeing much use for a while but both of these games are going to get bought and played... eventually.

I guess that's a win for the Steam Demo Fest. Now if they'd just make it easier to sort the demos meaningfully...

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