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If you're only going to play one Steam Next Fest demo make it...

Oh boy!

Steam Next Fest is easily one of my favourite parts of the videogames calendar. Loads of demos for forthcoming games suddenly appear on Steam and you can just download as many as you like and try them out. As much as I love it, I've never really found a way to cover it adequately. Over time, though, a sort of process has emerged. I go in with a few of my own targets, and then I ask people I work with for recommendations, hunt around online a bit, and eventually give way to just clicking on stuff. The end result is as close to random as I can willingly make it, I think. It suits me pretty well.

What I love about Steam Next Fest, when approached in this chaotic manner, is that for one week of the year I feel like the hero in Quantum Leap, the old TV series (I know there's a new version and I'm intrigued) about an amiable genius who travelled through time, abruptly leaping into other people's bodies for a few days. It's a lovely old show, and also the reason why certain forty-somethings, when handed a calculator, will always assume an exasperated expression and start talking about "Ziggy". You had to be there. Anyway, instead of offering order or any kind of meaningful structure to what follows, earlier this week I fired up the PC... and leapt.

Thronefall is a game I've had my eye on for a while, so it was a conscious choice. It's made by the team who created Islanders, which is one of the most intriguing and spatially-oriented city-builders I've ever encountered, a proper classic I still play almost every week. The team's next game initially seems rather more traditional, but with loads of polish and plenty of room to become really compulsive.

A clearing in Thronefall with a building in the centre.

It's a city-builder and tower defence game. You ride around on a little horse, placing buildings during the day and then protecting them from waves of enemies at night. The enemies drop coins when you kill them, and during the day you can use the coins to buy new buildings or upgrade old ones. Buildings might generate coins for you, like houses and farms, or they might give you soldiers, like barracks, or they might offer defence, like arrow towers. Reader: half an hour disappeared very quickly. And when I went on to the second level in the demo I saw an unlockable selection of modifiers, which were purely concerned with making the game harder and more rewarding. Keep an eye out for this one.

Wanderful feels like an intelligent place to leap next. I first thought it was a Dorfromantik knock-off, another European strategy game that, like Islanders, makes something complex from something very simple. In truth, Wanderful takes bits of games like Dorfromantik and Islanders and makes something new. Let's see if I can describe it.

It's a game about collecting mana as you wander around a landscape and spending the mana on buildings. But the buildings all clear areas of forest to allow you to move further, and you spend mana simply by moving around. So it's a game in which you're always leaking, in essence, and you have to work out how to gain more mana than you spend from moment to moment. The buildings you place have different abilities besides clearing forests, and the art style is wonderfully soft and colourful. I died a lot in Wanderful, but each time I died, I felt like I had learned something. Life is movement here - I left eager to play more. I cannot wait for the full game.

Two short experiences to leap into next. Venba feels like I have been waiting for it forever. It's the story of an Indian family living in Canada in the 1980s, and it's focused on food and cooking. The demo is a beautifully crafted thing: a bit of story, which I won't spoil, and a simple cooking task: idlis, the soft and fluffy rice cakes that seem to disappear whenever anyone as much as looks at them.

Cooking in Venba is exactly as I'd hoped it would be. You crank the radio, read the ingredients list from a family cookbook - a truly glorious in-game prop - and then you poke and prod and snap things together.

There's a trick to cooking idlis - the steamer I used needed layers of cloth placed at regular intervals, and the separate trays would only cook if they each saw the idlis positioned over steam holes in the tray beneath them. It was an absolute delight to puzzle all this out, particularly when the art's so colourful and sharp and the animation gives the game such a sense of pace. Venba absolutely lived up to my hopes.

An isometric world view from Within a Dead City with a chunky retro-aesthetic
Within a Dead City.

Within a Dead City, meanwhile, was a game I had never heard of. It's a pixelly 4X in which units control themselves, and it plays out on a chunky grid over which various ruins have been scattered. You create units and then they wander off into the world, uncovering the map and giving a shoeing to any monsters lurking out there. Earn stuff to level stuff up and create new units. You get the deal.

It works in part because it knows when to give you control - which builds and research to prioritise, yes, but also when to select an enemy for all your units to aim for. And it works in part because it has this ancient pixel look that makes it feel like a found object from a closed-down games store back in the early 1990s. It's clever and charismatic - an evocative 8-bit necropolis.

Moving on, Nour is a lovely food plaything. Conjure popcorn or mince slabs of meat and then just screw around with it all, setting it on fire, throwing it in the air, blowtorching it. It's arch and lovely to interact with and I think my nine-year-old, who loves colourful slime and Squishee Youtube videos, will fall into a game like this and never come out again. While we're rushing along at speed, Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood looks completely fascinating - a game about witches and demons in which you wield a Tarot deck and even design the individual cards. I need more time with it, and this evening feels perfect.

Elsewhere, a couple of biggies. En Garde! is getting a lot of press due to its Arkham-style combat. It's a game about being a Spanish swordfighter, and it's just wonderful, witty and sharp and zippy as you please. It borrows smartly from Arkham, taking the counter-heavy many-person battle and encouraging you to use the environment to win out against the odds. Kick enemies into sword racks or into the water, stun them by hitting them with a box or shove a bucket over their head. Then riposte, swipe, stab and all that. It's broken up with really smart platforming sequences, and its secret ingredient may be Spain with all its light-hearted flair. Also I was about half-way through the demo when I realised that, really, the Arkham games are basically about sword-fighting without the swords.

A sun-bathed plaza with swords-people in En Garde!
En Garde! | Image credit: Fireplace Games/Valve

After En Garde! I ended up with The Invincible, a sci-fi game that I recognised from an Edge cover. It's based on the work of Stanislaw Lem, and after leaping about through so many fast-paced worlds, it was a welcome change of pace.

The Invincible is a heavy, ponderous narrative game that roots you deeply in its world. Movement is slow and hard-won as you explore a sand-blasted planet dealing with bulky retro-tech and worrying endlessly about radiation poisoning. The demo has a great sense of pace as you pick a route to follow and then get waylaid. There's no combat to speak of, but the world still feels deadly, and, more than anything, it's a joy to peer out through a sixties space-suit visor and interact with gadgets that have on-off toggles and vacuum tubes.

That's me then. Is this a representative sample of Steam Next Fest? I doubt it. I played a lot more games that I didn't take notes on, I'll admit, and lots of the stuff out there has been covered elsewhere on the site too. But for me, the Quantum Leap method is the only way I can get into Steam Next Fest and then guarantee that I'll get out again in a relatively timely manner. What a treat. I hope you discover great things when you make you own jump into the unknown.

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