Monthly Column – February 2021 Top Three Hidden Steam Gems
Taking a bit of a break from the overt horror themes of my past few columns, this month’s best hidden Steam treasures revolve around generally less frightening themes, at least unless you have ailurophobia.
From JRPG to puzzle to tactics, all of these games feature the unofficial mascot of the Internet. That’s right, we’re talking cats! (And don’t worry, horror fans, we’ve got some skeletons, bats and ghosts in the mix, as well.)
Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide
by Philipp Lehner
Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide reminds me quite a bit of the old Flash-based web game Desktop Tower Defense, not only because of its appealingly hand-scrawled approach to graphics but also some mechanical similarities.
In this case, though, the objective isn’t to murder the lines of creeps – presented here as wandering spirits – via towers, but rather to guide them home through smartly placed cardboard boxes. It’s easy at first, but the game quickly throws in mechanical complications like teleportation portals, and the creeps are more unpredictable than the marching lines of typical tower defense games.
Both the time to complete a level and the number of boxes used contribute to score calculation – not to mention the fact that some levels give you a hard limit on the number of boxes available – so the default easy approach of building massive one-way cardboard box labyrinths soon necessarily gives way to some more thoughtful puzzle-solving.
Developer Philipp Lehner’s previous claim to fame was the Halfquake Trilogy, a notoriously and hilariously cruel set of Half-Life mods, so it’s a bit of a surprise that his follow-up is a playful puzzle game about a magical bat and a seemingly ordinary cat helping out confused ghosts, but this game is both adorable and addictive, with puzzles that are both well-designed and open-ended.
Osteoblasts is sort of the odd man – or cat, rather – out in this month’s theme, as your protagonist isn’t a skeleton, not a cat. (I did say there would be skeletons.)
But fret not, feline fans, because there’s still plenty of feline weirdness on display here. The game’s central premise revolves around a cat witch reanimating a skeleton – that’s you – to help defend her cemetery kingdom against the dogs, whose penchant for both burying and digging up bones is ruining the peace and quiet of the graveyard.
This game is more quirky than laugh-out-loud funny, but the strange world developers Moonana have put together here works well with the dungeon-crawling, and the setting is compelling enough to keep you grinding and exploring even if you’re not a fan of turn-based JRPG-inspired combat.
This is definitely one for fans of the stranger end of the RPG spectrum; it’s sort of a Halloween fantasy approach to the general vibe of games like EarthBound and Undertale.
by Ibe Denaux
Somewhere between tactics and grand strategy, this appealingly minimalist take on the somewhat feisty world of feline territorial negotiations incorporates a bit of both, not to mention RPG progression.
From old-school turn-based combat – starting out with the basics like scratching and dashing and leveling up to magical fireballs – of RPGs to the territorial capturing mechanics of ancient strategic board games, Kitty Tactics has it all.
And borrowing from grand strategy games like the Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings series, there’s even a simplified diplomacy meter…not to mention opportunities to expand and cement your legacy via mating and kittens.
Pretty complicated and impressive for a game that takes place on a single-screen grid (and unlike the Paradox games that seem to be at least a partial inspiration for developer Ibe Denaux, it won’t cost you an arm and a leg via DLC purchases, either).
Free Bonus Cat Game!
Cat Colony Crisis
by Devil’s Cider Games
Once again, this one’s got you monitoring relationships and interactions, though the cats in question are space colonists rather than wizards and warriors, and it’s not territorial struggles you’ve got to worry about, but disease vectors.
With social distancing – enforceable by spray bottle – contact tracing and even anti-mask aggression as themes, it’s not hard to figure out where Devil’s Cider Games got the idea for Cat Colony Crisis, and that’s entirely by design: it’s the winner of Jamming the Curve, a game jam sponsored by IndieCade and the National Academy of Sciences, among others, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The AI behavior modeling is impressive, giving a sort of bird’s eye view of the sort of work that goes into public health and disease response, and the cute space cats – and the fact that it’s actually a fun sim to play – mitigate some of the dread inherent to the premise. Good stuff, and an award well-earned.