Monthly Column – February 2020 Top 3 Curiosities
This month’s column of underrated Steam games is full of big moods, as the saying goes: you’ve got modernist melancholy (with a side of anthropomorphic animals), Medieval mysticism in meadows and woods, and of course some futurist cyberpunk terror to round things out:
Set in a small seaside town of anthropomorphic animals, Last Week is a thoughtful, conversation-based game about the end of the world. It’s about relationships, not nuclear explosions or mutants – this is the end of the world as a whimper, not a bang. Think A Night in the Woods crossed with Melancholia (the Lars von Triers film, not the emotion, although the game has plenty of that, too).
While each play-through only takes a half an hour or so, this is one of those narrative pieces with multiple endings to unlock and multiple characters to focus on during the limited time of the titular last week in question. Do you spend time reconciling with the person you recently broke up with, address your best friend’s apparent drinking problem, or help a single father comfort his worried child?
Since the game is more focused on narrative and repeated play-throughs, the characterization isn’t quite as deep as it could be and leans a bit too hard on stereotypes, like the strident social justice warrior insisting the Bible be rewritten without the sexist parts, but the dialogue is snappy and the animations charming despite their minimalist approach.
It’s also got a couple of surprise twists, leaving me curious enough to start a repeat play-through as soon as I finished my first ending.
The Wild Age
by McMagic Productions
Clearly inspired by Kingdom, this game takes a similar approach to strategy and settlement management, complete with the player guiding a ruler on horseback (though other mounts, like wolves, giant rabbits and even tigers can be unlocked as you work your way through the campaign).
What’s different about The Wild Age is largely its presentation. Though the game largely takes place in two directions, it’s presented isometrically in partial 3D, giving more space for your serfs and archers to run around.
The differences are less important than the similarities, however. Kingdom was great in large part because of its atmosphere (including wonderful music by Toytree that landed on our list of Top 10 Indie Game Soundtracks of 2015) and moody pixel art graphics.
The Wild Age goes for a low-poly 3D look instead, but its graphics are similarly evocative, from the interplay of light and shadow to the mysterious, misty forests and sun-dappled meadows, replete with happily hopping rabbits.
A solid homage to its obvious inspirations, The Wild Age captures a similar Medieval, mystical, faintly fairy tale feeling.
by Killed Pixel Games
Speaking of pixel art, though, aptly-named developer Killed Pixel Games delivers on that front with Shadowrain, their latest small horror offering.
Aesthetically reminiscent of late ‘80s adventure games like Neuromancer, Shadowrain has similar themes, as well. But without giving too much away, this is more Amnesia – with a side of Doki Doki Literature Club – than Deus Ex or Cyberpunk 2077.
And on top of an AI assistant and/or antagonist who may or may not be going through delusions of godhood, you’re also creeping through an abandoned underground research facility, stalked by…well…definitely something creepy.
Survival horror tropes like equipping you with little more than a flashlight and a few places to hide make this extra tense, and while the puzzles tend to be fairly limited – mostly involving exploring new areas and remembering where you need to backtrack – the constantly building sense of dread was more than enough to keep my brain occupied, thank you very much.
An impressive blend of retro cyberpunk flavor and contemporary horror that I’d like to see more often.
And let’s not forget the free stuff:
by SMU Guildhall
Whether the pun makes you giggle or groan, Tex-Mechs is unarguably an apt title: the game involves piloting a giant robot through the arid canyons of a post-apocalyptic – or possibly alien – Texas, blasting giant bug monsters along the way.
Favoring action over detailed simulation, the game emphasizes the sheer size of your mech by letting you get up close and stomp the bugs to death in addition to blasting them with flamethrowers or revolvers (of course there are revolvers, because Texas).
While this is a free student project with less than half an hour’s playtime, it’s worth the download not only to show support for the budding game designers at SMU Guildhall but also because it’s a pleasure to roam – at least as much as a giant robot can be said to “roam” – through the cel-shaded arroyos, complete with patches of wild bluebonnet. Just mind the exploding maggot monsters.
Hellpoint: The Thespian Feast
by Cradle Games
A higher-budget offering than I usually deal with in this column, this game serves as both an epilogue and demo for the upcoming Hellpoint action RPG, and if you think that’s confusing, wait until you try and make sense of the tutorial text.
While the combination of third-person melee and overly complicated item and ability interfaces could use a little work, the game’s hellish space horror aesthetic, blending the overall mood of Event Horizon with the theatrical body horror of Clive Barker – and just a touch of ‘90s superhero comics on our sword-wielding hero – is more than enough reason to stick with the occasionally cumbersome combat.