Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Fishing For Fun : Next Fest In Fall

I've been looking forward to Next Fest, that divertissement of dainty demos laid on by Steam once a quarter. Since I discovered the event in the winter of '22, courtesy of Kluwes at Many Welps, it's become a fixture on my gaming calendar for a couple of reasons.

The first, as I've said before, is that I find these bite-size morsels surprising satisfying in themselves. Although I almost always end up adding a couple of the games to my wishlist, so far I haven't bought too many. Contrary, I'm sure, to the intentions of the developers, that first, sweet taste often fades long before the full feast reaches the table. Maybe releasing demos so far in advance isn't the best sales strategy.

The best of the rest, whose ultimate fate I don't follow, remain with me, if at all, only as short, self-contained experiences, valid in their own right but needing no further expansion. Beyond that, there remain only my own bad choices and a few plain, bad games, either way best forgotten.

Or possibly they're just bad demos. I mean, it is theoretically possible for a developer to mess up the demo but get the game right. It would be interesting to know how often that happens. But let's not get side-tracked, for once.

The second reason (I had two, remember?) is that demos are great for blog posts. On average they take 30-60 minutes to complete, which means I can play the demo and write up my thoughts about it all in the same session. They're also easy to summarize and explain - or they should be if they're any good, given their very reason for existing is to act as a shop window for the game they represent.

Demos make it significantly easier for me to write those short, pithy posts I consistently complain about not being able to do. Even better, Next Fest contextualizes the posts and adds a semblance of structure, turning every quarterly event into a Feature Mini-Series here at Inventory Full.

Okay, that might be over-playing my hand a little. It's not as if I've been consistent in the way I've handled reporting the event over the last twenty months. Maybe I should have thought about that before now...

I do usually begin with a post listing the demos I've chosen, giving some reasons for my choices. This is that post. Before I get to the names of the games, though, I will just say that I found this Fall's selection disappointing. 

The event lasts a week, from the 9th to the 16th of October, and I was planning on playing a demo every day. I thought the hard part would be trimming my choices down to seven but that turned out to be wildly optimistic. 

I spent the best part of an hour last night and almost as long this morning, going through the full slate, using all kinds of keywords and tags but also just starting at the top and scrolling down. Two things happened: I kept seeing the same demos over and over again because Steam's categorization system sucks and I could barely find anything I could imagine playing even for the length of a demo.

Most of that is down to me. My gaming tastes are a lot narrower than my tastes in most entertainment media. I really only enjoy a handful of genres and I'm pretty picky even within those. Even so, I found this quarter's choices unusually uninspiring. 

It was honestly a struggle coming up with half a dozen demos I was willing to try and fully half of those were games I either already had wishlisted or have been following for years. I'm certainly not complaining about getting the chance to try three games I'm already interested in but that's not really what I think of as the point of Next Fest.

It also means that after a couple of hours of fine-combing the options, I could only come up with three new-to-me titles I felt were worth a look. And honestly, two of those I really only picked to make up the numbers. I'm sure that by the time the event ends, someone else will have posted a review of a demo I would have loved to try that I never spotted - it happens every time - but unless they do it soon it'll be too late for me to add it to the roster.

Until and unless that happens, my picks for the latest Next Fest are as follows:

Snufkin: Melody of Moominvalley

Might as well start at the top. I've had this on my wishlist since the day I heard about it. We're massive Moomin fans in this house and have been since childhood. The house is peppered with Moomin memorabilia and I get emails from the official Moomin Shop pretty much weekly.

You have to be very cautious with Moomin Merch. Not only is there a very wide variance in quality but there are subdivisions between the original comic strips, the novels, the TV series and the movie. Mostly my interest lies with the novels although I have the highest respect for the comic strips, which pre-date the prose. I'm more ambivalent over the TV and movie Moomins although I'm not discounting their own intrinsic merits.

Snufkin: Melody of Moominvally leans heavily towards the end of the franchise that interests me, at least visually. I guess I'll find out if it also works that seam narratively when I play the demo.

The game self-describes as "an ambient and wholesome experience for both kids and adults", which sounds unequivocally appealing. It "combines open world-mechanics with puzzles, stealth and melodic elements", which sounds more like something I'll need to see for myself before approving. 

Which is the whole point of having a demo, right? Super-looking forward to this one!

Sky: Children of the Light

This is also on my wishlist and I've mentioned it here before. It's a known entity, having already been a big success on Switch, Android and iOS. It also holds the Guiness World Record for "Most users in a concert-themed virtual world", although Guiness World Records certainly aren't worth what they were when I was a kid.

Sky is an MMO although possibly not an MMORPG. The Steam page describes it as "a peaceful, award-winning MMO designed to help players meaningfully connect with one another." Wikipedia goes into detail about the mechanics employed to support and encourage those meaningful connections and they are many. I imagine I'll just stump around on my own, talking to no-one, as usual but we'll see. Maybe there'll be Kool-Aid.

The graphics look lovely, which is what mainly attracted me to the game in the first place, shallow butterfly that I am. I'm hoping the open-world exploration will be entrancing enough on its own without any need to get involved in all that awkward "socializing" but as with Snufkin, for once I'm genuinely glad to have a demo available for a game I was already thinking of buying. It'll be very good to find out these things before I spend money.

Ship of Heroes

This is the one just about everyone reading this is likely at least to have heard of already. It's one of several in-development "spiritual successors" to the much-missed super-hero MMORPG City of Heroes. At least, CoH was much missed until it inconveniently returned as an exceptionally successful emulator project, thereby holing most of the would-be alternatives below the waterline.

That's what you get for taking a super-hero death at face value. Did they not know a "dead" super-hero always comes back? 

The passage of time plus the cost of development already seemed to have seen off most of the would-be wearers of the new super-hero MMORPG cape anyway. The emulator's runaway success merely confirmed what most people probably already thought, which was that none of these projects would ever see full release. As this demo suggests, however, like a good super-hero, SoH isn't going under without a fight. 

I'm not personally interested in playing the game if and when it launches. Despite being a lifelong super-hero fan, I don't actually like super-hero games very much. They rarely seem to capture anything about the genre that attracts me to it, usually feeling much more like a mish-mash of gaming tropes smushed inelegantly into a lump, like a parked car crushed by the Hulk when he needs something to throw.

The only thing that's ever held my attention in a super-hero game is a direct connection to a pre-existing property, usually one published by Marvel or DC. Without those IPs doing the heavy emotional lifting I find it very hard to care about the generic caped and costumed crimefighters of the likes of Champions or City of Heroes.

I also don't really see Next Fest as a particularly appropriate platform for MMORPGs of any stripe. I want to be in and out of a demo in no more than an hour, tops. The real demos for MMORPGs are alphas and betas, even the shortest of which have traditionally taken up at least a whole weekend of my time. 

Nevertheless, I feel almost bound by duty to give this one a look, even though the trailer they've created specifically for Next Fest is terrible. I guess there's still a chance the gameplay may hook me and I'll play all week but I doubt it. I imagine it'll get the same hour or so the rest get and that'll be plenty.

And those are the three games I already knew. Now for the three I'd not heard of, at least two of which I can I genuinely say I'm still not all that interested in, now I have. I'll be playing the demos for those two more in the hope of being surprised by joy than in the expectation of having a great time.

Sovereign Syndicate

This is the one I'm most hopeful for, although I only spotted it right at the end, when I was about to give up the hunt. Its Steam page calls it "A Victorian steampunk RPG with tarot cards instead of dice" which ticks a number of my boxes, albeit some of them with fairly faint pencil.

Graphically it looks great, all fog, brass and blunderbusses. Mechanically it sounds intriguing, with a "tarot card chance system" that allows for problem-solving by way of "combat, persuasion, magic, explosives".

Steam, in its often fatuous attempt to compare the game with something else I've played, offers up Disco Elysium, a frequently-made comparison that almost never stands close examination. This time, though, looking at the screenshots, I can see the clear influence, if only in design. The developers also claim the Baldur's Gate and Divinity:Original Sins series as role models, which is at least topical, if nothing else. It'll be interesting to find out if anything of that stands up to experience.


I'd be a deal more excited about this one if I hadn't just spent 98 hours playing Dawnlands. It looks to be another of the myriad of games hoping to bottle some of Valheim's magic, although in this case it's a brew heavily laced with Amazon's New World. The trailer makes much of the active combat, weapon types and skill system but also of the voxel-based world and all the building prospects that affords.

I'm in a bit of a bind with these kinds of games. I find them very compelling. I can lose hour after hour to the explore-gather-craft-build loop. They do seem to have a natural cut-off point, though, after which interest just drops to nothing. I'm good so long as there's a new biome to discover and explore but once that stops I can't really see the point of hanging around.

That's obviously not going to be a problem with a demo but conversely there's going to be no incentive whatsoever to put in the kind of determined effort the genre demands if you hope to get anywhere. I'll be interested to see if the developers have done anything to circumvent that problem for the specific purposes of filling this shop window.

If not, I guess I'll just be running around, dressed in rags and taking a lot of screenshots. I can think of worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Captain Pawsome

And finally, for a complete contrast, here comes Captain Pawsome. I did quite deliberately pick this as something I wouldn't normally play, so I 'd have something a little different to post about for a change, although now I come to write about it, I'm not as convinced as I was about just how different it's going to be. 

You might be surprised how hard it was for me to find something that was both "different" but that I could also stand the thought of actually playing. I was. I looked at dozens and dozens of possibles and dismissed them all in a matter of seconds with "Nope" or "Not likely" or "No way in Hell!"

This one has several merits from my perspective. The titular Captain is a cat. I like cats. Gameplay involves fishing, crafting and collecting. I like all of those. There doesn't seem to be any jumping, puzzling or combat of any kind, which means the whole thing should at least be functionally completable by me although whether I'll have the patience to catch all those fish is another question.

On the debit side, the music is really annoying but I guess I can turn it down. Or off. Other than that, it looks like it could be fun.

Those are the demos I've chosen. All I have to do now is play them. I suppose I'd best get started.


  1. I was keen to try Enshrouded, but so far I've yet to get the damn thing to actually launch. It just stays stuck at loading shaders.

    I hadn't realized Sky was also offering a demo, so thanks for alerting me to that. Downloading now.

    1. I haven't tried Enshrouded yet but downloading it last night sent my PC into a death loop from which it only escaped when I pulled the plug out of the wall. Not making me feel confident about trying the game...

  2. I'm going to have no choice but to play Sovereign Syndicate, aren't I.

    Before hitting play on the trailer, I would have guessed that the nearest influence will turn out to be Cultist Simulator/Sunless Sea (&Sky)/the rest of the Alexis Kennedy ecosystem derived from Fallen London. But it really does look tremendously like Disco Elysium.

    (By the way, both Blogspot and Wordpress seem oddly hostile to Firefox today; had to switch over to a Chromium-based browser to post this little comment. Wonder what the story is.)

    1. I played ther demo last night and Disco Elysium is by far the most obvius influence. There is a good deal of Fallen London in there as well. I liked it a lot. Review pending cos I'm at work today.

      As for Firefox, Chrome seems to have eaten its lunch. I'm getting warnings from some sites that my browser is unsupported when I visit them through Firefox and a couple won't recognise it at all. I have to go through Chrome sometimes which is really annoying because Chrome is not as good as Firefox for me - it doesn't have versions of the extensions and Add-Ons I feel are pretty much obligatory. I'm expecting Firefox to become unsustainable eventually but I'm hanging on until it dies.

  3. I also had trouble finding demos that interest me, which is odd. I usually have way more than I can ever play within the fest time. Not sure what it is. I only downloaded one, and it's a horse game, because I always play horse games.

    I came to your post hoping to see what you selected, and was surprised you felt the same!

    1. Heh. I was hoping for the same from you! Maybe someone else will step up!


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide