Monthly Column – January 2020 Top 3 Curiosities
This time around, my search for the obscure and underrated needles in the Steam haystack lead me outside my comfort zone, I was engrossed and amused by genres – specifically the visual novel and the physics puzzle – that usually hold little interest for me.
Sierra Ops: Episode 1 – Collapsing Daybreak
by Innomen Team
I could try and fool myself by saying this is a simplified space combat game with a whole lot of cut scenes, but let’s be honest: Sierra Ops is a visual novel.
It’s not my preferred genre, but this is well-written hard sci-fi, set a few hundred years in the future after Earth has begun colonizing the inner planets of the solar system. Despite the occasional giant robots – sorry, “exo-suits” – it’s more about political, corporate and military intrigue than mech battles; think The Expanse crossed with the more cerebral Gundam series storylines.
And yes, there are some rudimentary space combat bits every 40 minutes or so, but the reason to play is the writing, which despite some fairly stereotypical characterizations early on – the goofy but brilliant scientist, the tormented but precocious young pilot – is compelling enough that after playing the free first chapter, I’m already waiting anxiously the subsequent paid episodes.
by Igrek Games
Funded last year on Kickstarter, Bug Academy joins the short but illustrious list of games like Kerbal Space Program wherein success is rewarding but failure is downright hilarious. An action physics puzzle where everything is intentionally clumsy and rickety, the trick here is to maneuver a swarm of insects into doing a range of increasingly implausible tasks, from cattle-herding to home appliance delivery.
The joke, of course, is that these are tiny insects. But given that all of the objects are easily-disassembled block assemblages, the mechanic is a bit like a reverse Angry Birds, requiring a lot of precision to move things around on tiny gnat-wings without knocking everything over.
Occasionally frustrating but consistently comedic, I especially enjoyed that the refrigerator delivery mission rewards you for speed but doesn’t penalize you for braking windows, furniture or walls, making even the worst of my home maintenance crises look like minor annoyances in comparison.
Hellscape: Two Brothers
by B1000 Games
Admittedly, this one is in my wheelhouse, so much so that the clunky combat, difficult navigation – made worse by the lack of camera controls – and translation mistakes barely dented my enjoyment of Hellscape: Two Brothers, a third-person action-adventure inspired by Dante’s Inferno and featuring a mix of spearing scythe-armed demons and solving environmental puzzles.
Atmosphere is a big part of what makes this worth putting up with the less polished mechanical aspects, and from the jagged, shadowy, low-poly graphics – reminiscent of Malebolgia, with which it shares similarities in both theme and awkwardness – and a beautiful score that’s equal parts horror, JRPG and Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, this game has plenty of atmosphere to spare.
The more unfortunate mechanical elements mean this won’t be for everyone, but we fans of that narrow niche genre of Dante Alighieri-inspired dungeon-crawlers will take what we can get.
If you’re looking for more underrated games – and still dealing with holiday-related credit card debt – here are a couple of free games that might have slid under the radar:
by Cat in a Jar Games
A fairly simple point-and-click adventure, Immanence suffers a bit from both its vagueness and its poor translation.
But Denis Vyatkin, the developer behind Cat in a Jar Games, more than makes up for those shortcomings with utter creepiness combining technological and spiritual horror; think The Matrix meets The Exorcist as an ‘80s-era Interplay Productions demo.
War Ender Evolution
by Crystal’s Heart Studio
I love a classic vertical scrolling shooter, and War Ender Evolution has that classic ‘90s feel: plenty of bullets to dodge but not to the extreme of today’s highly specialized bullet hells.
It’s pretty basic – there are no weird twists on the genre, and the graphics are functional, at best – but it makes up for it with smooth, responsive controls that feel just right.