Crackin' Packs is Crackin' Back!
Once again, Steam hosted another big games event that featured tons of sales, streams, and demos of upcoming titles available to play within the time window it was online.
Although this was another opportunity to give independent games the spotlight they deserve, especially as in-person shows and networking events remain inviable, I feel as though that bigger companies behind these efforts do not know how to manage accessibility with their scale, especially when compared to my experiences in virtual shows that were run by smaller teams.
According to other sources, there were over 500 demos. Mind you, the Fest ran from February 3 to February 9—and that’s barely a whole week to even have time to scratch the surface! Although some demos remain up, once the event is over, there is no way to really catch up or to see what was featured in a cohesive way.a You have to go out of your way to seek this information out through specific developers’ channels. While I was writing this, Steam continued to have no chill and was using Lunar New Year festivities to host another big marketing campaign immediately on the weekend right after.
Regardless, I was able to try about 30 demos (which is maybe less than 20% of the available content out there) and it was interesting sussing out trends jumping from title to title: from a huge wave of narrative-heavy point and click games, to even more new takes on the cyberpunk genre within a post-Cyberpunk 2077 world. What is to come out of indie gaming for 2021 is promising.
Here is a rundown of what I played along with my first impressions!
ANNO: Mutationem is a cyberpunk action-adventure RPG game where you play as a young woman who needs to fight her way around the rough and tough city of Metropolis to fulfill a personal mission. Earlier in its development, the game boasted incorporating a lot of elements from SCP Foundation material, but how much of this will be significant in the game’s final version of the story is currently not clear. It uses a well executed 2.5D visual style that sets 2D characters against 3D rendered environments—and it looks great! The gist of the story is pretty unclear so far (cults? mech viruses? sexy anime girls?), but this is one of the titles I am excited for because it feels polished and has what seems to be a bigger, strange world with a lot of dark stuff going on.
Created by DONTNOD co-founder and Life is Strange co-creator Hervé Bonin under his new studio Nameless XIII, Ashwalkers is a point and click survival management game in which you navigate your party through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. In spite of the harsh, dangerous world you have to go through, Ashwalkers is a slow-paced, meditiative, walking game with potential to fulfill anyone who just wants to focus on a narrative-rich experience with different branching paths. The writing thus far is decently immersive and atmospheric, doing a good job in pulling you in with simple, but effective prose to describe otherwise hostile situations. Ashwalkers seems like it can serve a satisfactory run or two if someone just wants to take in the story without all the bells and whistles of a more adrenaline-fueled game that has combat.
Beacon Pines puts you in the simultaneous role of an anonymous reader of a book and the main character of said book: a kid named Luka, who alongside his friends uncover strange happenings that seem to be developing within their once quaint, quiet town. As the story progresses, the game lets you go back and forth into the perspective of the reader, who has the ability to help you rewind and jump around to different points in the game to possibly change events. As Luka, you collect and find charms throughout your adventures: these charms serve as vocabulary you can use at your disposal to progress the story and fill in the blanks at branching points. Sometimes you have to revisit a certain branch in the story at a later time until you get a new charm, and this may even mean experiencing a bad result before you are able to achieve a much better outcome.
Beacon Pines is fashioned in a cute, illustrative style similar to childrens’ books, which is appropriate given its very meta take on storytelling. The main mechanic is clever and I am looking forward to finding answers as to what is going on with its creepy underbelly.
Beasts of Maravilla Island
In the shadows of Umurangi Generation and preceding the upcoming New Pokémon Snap comes another 3D exploration photography snapping game called Beasts of Maravilla Island.
In it, you play as an aspiring wildlife photographer who sets out on an adventure to explore the magical Maravilla Island in effort to help its conservation. Following advice from her grandfather’s journal, you have to go out of your way to snap every flora, fauna, and fantastical creature you can find, sometimes needing to solve puzzles in order to coerce your subjects out. The game is a delightful experience as another photograph quest game to try out if that is your sort of thing.
Blind Drive takes minimalism gaming to a different kind of extreme in which you are a research subject who unexpectedly finds himself forced to drive blindfolded. All you can see on your screen is a meter determining your position on a left or right horizontal axis. The game is an entirely auditory experience in which you must depend on listening carefully (headphones on!) to where incoming traffic or other obstacles are coming from to figure out what direction to steer. At times, other sights and sounds will come in to try to further distract and disrupt your experiencing, spiking moments in difficulty.
The humor in the game’s main story is a little contrived and kind of grating, mostly stemming from the issue that the mysterious figure holding you hostage is a zealous attempt at combining Jigsaw from Saw and any other clownish, whacky villain you can think of with a deep voice on top of it. For a game like this, hopefully there will just be a free for all mode independent of this narrative if you just want a straightforward, juicin’ challenge to see how long you can last. I wouldn’t be surprised if something like this has a big YouTube gamer streaming moment.
Bloodroots is a game about revenge, but thankfully it’s not one that is filled with dread, cynicism, and utter disdain—to quote Destructroid’s review of the game, it actually “oozes style!”
You are on a quest to hunt down the man who betrayed you, and so you are laying destruction upon anything that gets in your way. From using improvised weapons like vegetables laying around, Bloodroots has you go on cartoonishly deranged, quick-paced chain killing sprees, and it manages to be fulfilling whether or not you are choreographing your combos or entirely improvising. Given that you yourself can die with one hit, it’s the sort of game meant to be replayed over and over to beat challenges against others and even against yourself. The developers were even hosting a contest that challenged players to see who can speedrun the demo level the fastest within the Steam Fest’s duration.
Cats and the Other Lives
Following the passing of a significant member of the Masons, you play as the family cat observing how these humans’ lives develop and change as they are forced to confront regretful pasts and unresolved wounds. Navigating through the game, you are limited in scope in what you can do as a cat, sometimes needing to wait on the humans around you to do something to move forward. Other times, you may also have to use your distinct, feline features to an advantage to cleverly navigate around in ways the humans cannot.
My biggest problem with many point and click adventures is their density and inefficient pixel-hunting: these sorts of games are indeed meant to be dense reading experiences, but more often than not I am only motivated to click every single thing I can find just to progress the narrative, only to be subjected to useless, unfunny banter that is neither helpful or fruitful to my experience. On the other hand, this game is a pretty refreshing take on point and click adventures because of the fact that you are limited in what you can do given you are a creature without opposable thumbs. Sometimes too many options in a game can do it a huge disservice and make playing a chore, but Cats and the Other Lives not only minimizes what you are able to do for a more focused experience, but it is even further justified in its story.
There is definitely a noticeable uptick at attempts to develop open world games, but more often than not, I have found these endeavors to be too ambitious. My recurring issue with weaker open world games is that they do succeed in creating the vastness that defines the genre, but then they fail to actually put fulfilling content within it. I felt as though The Companion suffered this exact problem, in which you play this spirit dog who goes around collecting light orbs to slowly reveal a story. But that’s it. I think it was also a story that I didn’t really find to be enticing either, but it could have worked better in a different game style. It seems as though some open world games just want the excuse of exploring a huge environment without really needing to do so. So unfortunately, at least for the time being, this game is real ruff (woof!)
Don’t Forget Me
How many times do you sometimes blank out in the middle of a game or you feel hurried and need to speed through the dialogue? Unfortunately, you’ll be at a huge disadvantage if you pull that in this game!
Described as a “jazz-punk adventure”, Don’t Forget Me puts you in the role of someone working in memory manipulation, set in a future world where preserving and transferring over memories that clients want to save is now a possible service. However, caught up in the knowledge of a possibly developing government conspiracy, you must use deductive skills and explore any new clients’ minds to reveal secrets they themselves are having trouble remembering or are deliberately hiding in an effort to find any leads that may save society. Don’t Forget Me is basically a game of word association and paying close attention: you need to remember details you learn about your clients through what they say because you may need those keywords to move forward and unlock other paths as you go through deconstructing their mind. It also has a silky smooth soundtrack that combines jazz with synthwave.
Dr. Livingston, I Presume?
I actually did not play this demo at all, mostly because it was a whooping 4 whole GB and I just really didn’t want to deal with that as I was trying to quickly peruse through so many other titles. However, I still think it is important to talk about its concept and my concerns with it. Dr. Livingston, I Presume? puts you in the role of explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley following his historic and heavily mythologized union with the missionary Dr. David Livingstone. Played like an “escape the room” game without any real threat to leave, you explore a mysterious building and solve puzzles. The game also serves as a museum to the player to share educational insights on African culture and the European explorers that trekked the continent contemporary to this time period.
According to the game’s page on Steam, you will experience,
Who is this game for? Games are a great medium to use as tools for education, but I am not getting the vibe that this game in particular will be sensitive to, well, matters concerning the colonization and opening up of the African continent to imperialism. I am not sure why we need to revisit the work by Stanley and Dr. Livingstone unless we are doing it under new scrutiny.
Although Dr. Livingstone may not have had sinister intentions, simply researching the lands just to carry out missionary work—and debatably he might have been an abolitionist—Christian missionary work in itself continues to carry loaded baggage that very much ties to imperialism, a lot of it still motivated on Westernizing cultures in exchange for charity. Dr. Livingstone’s research also opened the doors to the “race for Africa” whether he intended or not, and his work was pretty much used as free advertising for any big European power to throw their shot into acquiring territory in Africa. (It was indirectly instrumental in Belgium’s colonization of the Congo!) Stanley also might have been outright just a shitty person and had a poor temperament. There are also numerous accounts that he was a disrespectful, and abusive person to the African natives. Am I trusting this game to unpack any that? Based on the game’s promises, no, not really.
Yawn. We need to talk about the oversaturation of swipe left and right gatekeeping games that unfortunately seem to have been a result of the legacy of Papers, Please nearly 10 years later. Everescape is another one of those games, except even worse, because it also appears to be part of the projected wave of pieces of art that were and will be made in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Playing as an employee at an immigration office, you have to either accept or reject applicants based on whether or not their provided documents are sound. But on top of all of that, there is also a deadly virus going around with currently no cure in sight, so now you also have to consider that issue while some applicants may be infected. Hmm. The demo also had a lot of missing and broken elements to it, so I cannot comment on what more is there to expect to make this game any more interesting or compelling besides its eccentric art style.
Fate of Kai
Fate of Kai is a puzzle game in the form of an interactive comic that has you cleverly shifting and replacing words between panels to change events in order to move forward. You are replacing and moving around words, from either changing what Kai, the main character, can do, or manipulating other character’s ideas. Similarly to the aforementioned Beacon Pines, sometimes you may have to move forward in the story—even though it may not achieve the outcome you want—in order to retrieve the right word to put back into your arsenal to go back and fix things. And like Beacon Pines, this is another interactive narrative game with an interesting mechanic that I really look forward to playing in full.
Gwan Moon High School: The Ghost Gate
A Korean developed visual novel, Gwan Moon High School: The Ghost Gate has you switch across different perspectives within a group of students who run into the nightmarish occurrences in their school.
As much as the art and presentation are excellent, there’s very little to the atmosphere for what is supposed to be a horror game, and it felt more silly than scary. Cell phone reception kicks the bucket the moment you enter the school. Light switches are conveniently missing in specific spots of the building. It also turns out the school was built on cursed as hell haunted grounds which might explain some things! Who keeps approving moving forward with construction on these sites?! I also got bonked to death by a janitor’s broom and that was funny.
The game runs on the trope that everything happening is because the main characters are running on terrible logic. It’s definitely more appropriate if you’re into that sort of thing and are willing to suspend your disbelief at times. One character forgot a workbook at school and she thought it’d be a great idea to retrieve it late at night. Why couldn’t she just wait until the early morning? Another character somehow also found himself stuck at the school for long hours just from working on something until the stroke of midnight, which is how he landed in his predicament with everyone else. If the game is saying anything, it seems to be that the extremities and obsessive pressures of cram school culture really can literally kill you.
Hermitage: Strange Case Files
Hermitage: Strange Case Files has a lot of potential looking like another stylish, text-heavy narrative mystery game with paranormal elements, following the path of many others before it in this genre. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to actual gameplay at all because the demo literally just only covers the first opening dialogue cutscenes nothing else. But yeah, uh—it looks good!
What if a single Rhythm Heaven level is a whole game? Kovox Pitch is a rhythm game where you play a kid hitting baseballs to the beat of music. And that’s it. But y’know what? It’s good as hell!
It aesthetically looks good and feels good, reeling in nostalgia combined with the sounds of whatever lo-fi chill beats 24/7 playlist you got going on in the background. The full game will also have a track editor to design your own levels. Out of everything I played during the Fest, this was the simplest, yet I have a good feeling that this will stay with me for the year.
A Long Journey to an Uncertain End
Something about this game’s vibe rubbed me the wrong way. A Long Journey to an Uncertain End is a management game, clearly taking cues from Star Trek and Firefly, where you fly around the universe with a rambunctious crew under your belt as you take on jobs. All of this revolves around a bizarre backstory that your character is running away from an ex.
Gameplay-wise it currently feels very repetitive in the management sim aspect in regards to what I can do and with my crew. It would be nice if there was any intuitive social aspect to the game, but so far going out of my way to talk to my members on board does not do anything and never really changes. It is also unclear to me if your crew makeup actually does change at all in the progress of the game, or if you are simply stuck with the same people.
The game showcases a diverse cast of characters and attempts inclusive language; such as NPCs having their pronouns explicitly spelled out under the name—a nice touch! However, there was a lack of diverse options in the game’s character creator, and I’m assuming it will be more fleshed out in the game, but I could not find something that best matched my skin color which one would think would be a basic option readily available. In addition, the “escap[ing] the clutches of your abusive ex” plot element is weird to me and sticks out like a sore thumb since it’s not really elaborated upon in the demo against bigger plot threads developing in the game’s world. It seems like the ex might be some sort of powerful entity, but in the context of everything going on and what you have at your disposal—you’re in a space crew with access to all of this stuff for goodness sake—but hello, does the block button not exist in space? The demo ends right where the ex character in question is introduced, after intercepting a call you were marking and nothing more is elaborated on that. So far it just feels like a half-baked allegory on leaving an abusive relationship and finding refuge in a found family (the crew). In conjunction with creating your character at the start you have to name your ex, too, and I just find this whole thing a little inappropriate, especially if someone is still reeling from an actual abusive relationship.
The Longest Road on Earth
Less of a game and more an interactive film, The Longest Road on Earth has you follow along and experience vignettes of different people’s lives. This ranges from a white collared businessman, to an antiques shop owner, to a young girl frolicking in the countryside, and even more. The game is overlaid with a greyscale treatment and texture like an old movie, and characters are depicted as anthropomorphic animals who otherwise are experiencing relatable, human moments. The game is set against a moving, intimate soundtrack specifically composed for it that succeeds in its attempts at capturing both the mundane and more thrilling moments of life. I am unsure if anything will ever come to the surface that connects the lives of the different people you are seeing, but I would like to see more of what this ride will bring.
Lorn’s Lure is a 3D atmospheric first person platformer in which you play an android who is being mysteriously led through climbing within a deep cavernous system as a result of a glitch in his system. The game exhibits a rough and unpolished visual style, intentionally trying to harken back to the limitations of 90s 3D graphics. It reminds me of the different interpretations of a virtual game world as explored in ReBoot and The New Adventures of Jonny Quest. Although there is a bit of a story in there, Lorn’s Lure really is a simple game for huge precision platforming aficionados.
Lost Words: Beyond the Page
With story provided by Rhianna Pratchett, Lost Words: Beyond the Page is a platform narrative adventure game that takes place within a young girl’s diary and the fantasy world she creates within it. Playing as her self-insert character, you jump across the words on each page she narrates in addition to needing to fill in the gaps to move forward by moving and grabbing the appropriate words around. While in the fantasy world, you gather items that would benefit the story’s progress and solve different problems. It’s a very sweet game that is definitely geared towards children and budding writers specifically.
Luna’s Fishing Garden
Luna’s Fishing Garden is essentially just a cute fishing simulator where you go back and forth taking requests from big fluffy animals. It makes more sense as a perfect portable game, specifically something harkening back to the Game Boy Advance era like the River King series. Despite having very little to the demo and what I expect out of the final product, it is something you can easily go in and out of.
WOW! Narita Boy is a very stylish action adventure game that taps hard into nostalgia and rocks on with its blatant homage to Tron and references to the Golden Age of arcade era gaming and limitations of computer games in the 80s.
A young boy is whisked away into his video game when the inhabitants of its digital world are ailing for a hero to save it from peril as a result of the game’s slowly corrupting code from outside forces and an entity known as “Him”. The inhabitants have developed a whole religion around its developer, calling him their “The Creator” and it is up to you to figure out how to tap back into his mind to fix the game and further uncover the mysteries and magic of its programming through the power of the Techno-sword.
Narita Boy is a visual treat, treated with a low-bit pixel style—that reminds me of Craig. D. Adams’ work for Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP—overlaid with the texture of what looks like a game running behind an old cathode-ray tube monitor. The game is surely a thrill for anyone jonesing for a hack n’ slash with retro elements all connected with strange but fascinating diegetic lore. The game also does a good job warning players who may suffer sensory issues that would be triggered by strobing effects and flashing lights and colors.
Charlie lived with a supposedly idealized, family life until tragedy hits the home. Now, she has grown up into a rebellious teenage girl with emotional issues, feeling stuck and burdened in having to constantly watch after her younger brother. Finding herself lost and whisked away in a surreal, dreamlike world, Charlie not only has to fend off the strange things that will attempt to constantly endanger her and her brother, but she also has to come to terms with her own personal issues as a result of her traumas.
Oddventure fits squarely in the vein of the category of quirky, independent RPGs like the MOTHER series and Undertale, containing somber elements intertwined with a very happy-looking surface. Stylistically, it is very similar to those aforementioned titles both visually and auditorily, but it also carries the same weight of an allegorical story that explores the loss of innocence in childhood and unpacking those traumas later in adulthood.
Like Undertale, Oddventure also seeks to subvert the expectations of how a combat system works in RPGs, using a mood management system that gives you the option to talk your way past enemies as opposed to physical fighting, all while also complicating gameplay as you need to balance the mental state of your party in addition to their regular health points. This is another game I was very impressed by and would like to experience it through.
You are a skeleton.
Osteoblasts is a dungeon crawler RPG “about skeletons, by skeletons and for skeletons.”
You play as a bundle of bones raised from the dead by a Cat Witch, and you are set on a journey to uncover your life(?)’s purpose all while defending yourself against the forces that will get in your way and may be out to eat you. Although the cats that are wandering around can be mean, the dogs are pretty messed up in this game.
Potion Craft: Alchemist Simulator
Styled in the fashion of old illuminated manuscripts penned during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance schematics, Potion Craft: Alchemist Simulator puts you in the role of an alchemist who sets up a new business in a shop that was previously abandoned by a wizard (I hope they’re not up to no good!).
Making potions, the game depends on the mechanic of literally stirring these mixes in a pot in conjunction with other steps you might do, such as billowing the flames off a heat source with a fan or grinding herbs in a mortar and pestle. You can see your progress if you are on the right track of making a proper recipe on a map as you do these things, indicated by a marker moving along a path. This map also has points you can pass through that gives you points to unlock more branches in skill trees and other items later on. Of course, you can also save the recipes to make past mixes with more ease later on.
You sell the potions to customers as they come in each day, and it’s a very relaxed set up where there is no timer and you can always set your own terms by ending the day whenever you want. Customers will come in with varying requests, like a warrior needing something that can produce fire effects against a monster; so this would mean you need to make a fire potion.There is also a simple haggling system in which you have to time your clicks against specific beats on a meter to hopefully increase the price of each concoction you try to sell.
At the moment, the game feels a little inaccessible, because it requires a lot of clicking and wrist movement with a mouse. Hopefully in the future the game will give you more settings to customize and modify the controls to your comfort.
Song of Farca
Ever since the Orwell games, I feel as though anything trying to emulate elements of them have never been quite as solid or intuitive. Playing a freelance, hacker private investigator, Song of Farca has you tap into all sorts of devices planted around an over-surveillanced, corrupt city in order to help out different clients. You have to hop across different modes of gameplay, from talking with your clients, to accessing previously hidden parts of maps, and finding keywords on social media to get more information relevant to your case. The game feels very linear and what I would describe as railroad-y, in which all points lead to a specific path in order to solve cases. As much as the game has an interesting set up and cool visuals, it doesn’t feel satisfying with its rigid, step-by-step way of playing.
Extraterrestrials have arrived on Earth with the initial promise of working together with its inhabitants, but instead, they have weasled their way through politics to grow a huge, oppressive enterprise and keep humankind under their boot. In response, the rebel group Squadron 51 tries to fight back.
Squadron 51 is a side scrolling shooter game that has you confront all sorts of aircraft and light bullet hell projectiles. With a co-op mode that will be made available in the full game, you must fly and shoot your way through alien technology and other mechanisms flinging your way to save Earth’s future. Combining full motion, live-action shot video, static props, and elements of stop motion animation, there clearly was so much high production effort into this game—and it truly shows! The game pays homage to 1950s sci-fi and B-movies and it’s certainly an intuitive, satirical take on our modern-day politics and capitalism.
Sumire is a narrative adventure game that takes place across the course of one day, in which you play as a young girl who is trying to fulfill a wish by taking on the tasks of talking creatures and magical encounters. As reality and imagination is blurred, you can take or refuse these tasks in all sorts of different ways, changing how the night may go just before it’s over. The changes that happen over the course of how you handle the different quests are definitely subtle, and the game exudes a lot of charm in doing a nice job in conveying a colorful world viewed through a child’s exaggerated imagination. I think this is also the first game I played where the main direction of navigation goes from right to left.
Timberborn is a city-building game that has you manage beavers to eventually build whole, sprawling beaver cities and societies. Unlike managing humans in other city-building games, you have to consider specific factors like access to water supply and flood controlling to ensure your amphibious rodents are properly satiated. Other environments and settings you can manipulate will also be available in the full game, like a desert, which can add more difficulty to the survival aspects by taking the beavers out of an even more unnatural environment. All my beavers died of thirst because I had no idea what I was doing even in the tutorial, so I think I have a long way to go before I can consider building a whole water rodent empire.
Literally imagine any freeplay civilization game ever except at its most reduced state. That is exactly what Zen World is. All you do is place tiles down and let things happen as you go. And that rules.