Friday, October 7, 2022

Three Down, Four To Go: Steam Next Fest

I've been whittling away at the seven Next Fest demos I picked this time around and so far it's been a fun little diversion. I've finished two, made a deal of progress in a third and just started the fourth. I'm going to wait until the event's over before I decide which titles are going on my wishlist but from here it looks like three out of the first four.

Wishlisting games on Steam is an interesting subtopic of its own. The ostensible reason for wishlisting is to remind yourself and others of titles you'd like to buy, either when they become available or when you have the time or the funds. It also ensures you don't miss out when titles go on sale, as they frequently and seemingly randomly do. Whether you ever do end up buying them is, of course, another matter altogether.

In recent times I've noticed another aspect of wishlisting. It appears to have some intrinsic value to the developers seperate from the possible financial gain they accrue, should you eventually decide to buy. Devs aren't shy of asking, either. I've seen a number of appeals asking demo players to consider adding the game to their wishlist because it helps build the marketing profile for the game.

They don't usually phrase it quite as baldly but that's what they mean. It seems to be similar to content creators on social media platforms asking you to Like or Subscribe. I don't want to derail my own post here so I might save this for later but I just googled "How does Wishlisting on Steam help developers?" and got a ton of interesting-looking results. 

Suffice it to say, adding a game to your wishlist after playing the demo has implications beyond merely bookmarking it for your personal records. I recently de-listed a game after I learned it had changed direction to incorporate crypto, NFTs and play-to-earn. I could just have left it there and forgotten about it but I wanted to make sure my interest in and approval of the title was no longer implied and that any benefit to the developers from my having it on the list, however minimal, was withdrawn.

Gosh! And to think we used to just buy games and play them. Onwards and upwards, eh?

So, to the demos, in the order I played them. First up, Midnight Girl. This one ticks so many of my boxes I feel like I'm in an Amazon warehouse. Or maybe a Kafka novel... I need to work on my similes. 

Here's the full, extremely lucid, description from the game's Steam page:

"Midnight Girl is a 2D point-and-click adventure game for mobile, PC and console.

The game takes place in France in the mid-Sixties. The story, mood, and style of the game are inspired by the city of Paris, Belgian comics and Sixties cinema.

The late teen tomboy Monique lives as a cat burglar in Paris. After a heist gone wrong, she ends up in jail where she meets an enigmatic prisoner. They escape prison together, and agree to venture on a spectacular heist for a precious diamond. Thus begins a quest that takes our heroes through a catholic monastery, a Parisian metro station and the Catacombs.

The game focuses on story and atmosphere. The gameplay mixes elements of stealth, discovery and puzzle solving.

I mean, come on! Is there even any point in me reviewing the demo after that? Or playing the game? Also, did you know that if you cut and paste from a Steam page into Blogger it lifts the entire video and embeds it? I didn't but I do now! I'm going to be doing that a lot more from now on, you can bet.

I loved this. As a demo, it's just about perfect. It looks like all they've done is lift a whole chapter from the middle of the game. They start you running with no instructions or preamble and it just works. Everything is wholly intuitive. The controls feel immediately natural and comfortable, the story makes sense, the voice acting is delightful, the puzzles are logical, the solutions are credible and best of all it looks and sounds gorgeous.

As will be made very clear, even though I play a lot of point and click adventures, I really don't much like the puzzles in them. I frequently refer to walkthroughs because I stopped finding second-guessing the bizarre thought processes of developers fun many years ago. When I find a P&C that stays fun throughout, even when I don't refer to a guide, that's a game definitely worth wishlisting.

And recommending: so, recommended.

Next we have Rosewater Not to pre-empt the body of the review but I loved this one, too. That probably shouldn't be all that surprising. I've started with the demos I'm most interested in and I'm working my way down, so it would be a bit of a problem if I didn't like the opening salvo.

Rosewater is set in the Old West, although it rapidly becomes apparent that's an Old West not our Old West, unless I was napping through double history the day we covered cross-continental airship travel putting the railways out of business. The game's version of the mid-nineteenth century seems to be satisfyingly free of gender and racial bias, at least on the hour or so I've seen of the gameplay so far, which neatly sidesteps some of the more problematic elements of the frontier life for a 21st century audience.

You play a freelance writer and ex-champion boxer called Harley Leger (French pronounciation.) The demo opens with you fresh off the train, standing in the dusty streets of a typical no-horse town. You're there for a job interview at the local paper but in short order you find yourself the intended victim of a pickpocketing scam before almost being crushed to death by a body thrown through the second-story window of the newspaper office - by the very person you've come to see.

Do you really want to work there after that? Apparently so, yes. And it's believable that you would, too, because the writing in Rosewater is very good indeed. In the hour I played, very little about the plot or in the many conversations felt video-gamey at all. Yes, there are a few puzzles because without them I guess it wouldn't qualify as a game at all but even those felt like the things the protagonist of a novel might do, not something leveraged in to appease a gamer's expectations. 

Despite that novelistic qualiy, Rosewater doesn't have a typical "visual novel" sense to it at all. To me, it felt more like being inside a radio play, possibly because there's a lot of dialog. Most of the action consists of talking to people, which might be a problem if the conversations weren't so interesting and the voice acting so good.

Seriously, the graphics are simple and charming but the voice acting really shines. Everyone is just on it. The line readings are nuanced and impeccably delivered. It's a real pleasure to listen to - like a good radio play. It's no wonder the Steam page makes a feature of the quality of the voice cast with photos of everyone involved, although the seventy-five minute video may be pushing it just a little...

I thoroughly enjoyed the demo of Rosewater, which I still haven't finished after more than hour of concentrated play. There is a technical problem I ought to mention; the demo frequently freezes for a few seconds as it loads data from the hard drive, which is something I haven't seen a game do for a long time. I assume that will be fixed by the time the full game arrives, so with that one caveat, once again, recommended.

Thirdly and finally for today, The Abandoned Planet.  Described on its Steam page, briefly, succinctly and accurately, as "A throw-back, retro-inspired, point and click adventure with chunky and beautiful pixel art", this was one I didn't really take to with the same enthusiasm as the others. 

It's not that there's anything really wrong with it, more that my patience with this kind of thing expired back in the late 'nineties. I can't see the attraction of making new games using the kind of graphics that we had no choice but to put up with back then. It's not like we wouldn't all have preferred a higher resolution all along, is it? I don't recall many developers making a feature of how little detail there was in their graphics or how blurry they looked...

Oh well. Nostalgia is a thing that sells or so it appears. And the graphics here aren't unappealing, even if I did keep finding myself squinting to try and bring them into focus. It wasn't really the look of the the thing that put me off so much as the gameplay.

Again, there's really nothing much wrong with that, either. It's all just as you'd expect: explore your surroundings, examine everything you see, pick up everything that's not nailed down, use X with Y on Z, solve the puzzles to progress. 

The problem for me was that there was literaly nothing else. It's all puzzles, relentlessly, one after another. There's nothing you can find that isn't used for solving a puzzle, which is why there's so little to be found. There's one character - you - and the only time you hear anyone speak is when you talk to yourself. The voice acting is good but the actor doesn't have much to work with when all they can do is describe what they're seeing and doing.

I finished the demo but only with the assistance of a walkthrough on YouTube. That's not because any of the puzzles were hard or unfair - they're all quite straightforward and reasonable - but because I kept losing interest. All adventure games require a certain degree of compliance but here the whole thing felt just a little too mechanical.

That said, I don't want to be overly critical. The Abandoned Planet looks to be exactly what the developers say it is. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, the demo suggests it's exactly what you'll get. Recommended, for those who like this kind of thing - just not for me. 

And that's it for the first instalment. I started a fourth demo, Pitstop in Purgatory, last night but I only had time to play for twenty minutes. I will spoil my own review by saying I enjoyed it a lot. With luck I'll finish it today and maybe another demo too. I don't plan on posting anything over the weekend so I ought to have time to finish a couple more, if they're concise.

Final thoughts on the bunch next week.

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