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There was a nice buzz about EGX London this past weekend, a whiff of positivity about it, at people being back together, relatively unimpeded by the pandemic and playing games together again. EGX felt much more like its old self. And many of us were there, walking the halls, hosting quizzes (thank you if you came to one), and playing games.
And what games there were: big ones, small ones, old ones, new ones. One of the most eye-catching instalments was a pool table with an enormously warped corner, curving up into the air, and which made playing it feel completely different to normal. Amazing what one simple change can do.
But plenty of other games caught our eye too. And here, in no particular order, they are.
I have now accepted that any pixel art game will turn my head, and I also realise I am fond of city-builders. It's as though LakeSide saw me coming. But LakeSide has some bold ideas of its own. To begin with, it's side-on, meaning it's a city-builder you can only build in two dimensions in, and, as you're on an island, this severely limits your available space. It also behaves a bit like a survival game with a turbo-charged clock, where years pass like seconds and you can find yourself game-overing quickly if you don't keep up with housing or food or your city's other demands.
There are various things like fires and natural disasters, and sudden migrant arrivals that stretch you further, but if you keep on top of objectives - 'build X' - and reach milestone population amounts, you should unlock the buildings you need to drive you forward.
The test will come, I think, when you run out of space, which didn't happen before the demo ran out for me. Fortunately, LakeSide entered Steam Early Access this week so now there's more time to find out.
I went to check this out after it was described to me as a Slay The Spire-like. I love me some good deck-building, Rogue-like gameplay and I was not disappointed. I feel like Wildfrost takes Slay The Spire, adds the best parts of Monster Train and then adds its own fresh twists. In particular, I really enjoyed the emphasis on card placement on the battlefield and the freedom to move any of your unit cards around at any point. I also appreciate being able to recall any unit other than your leader to heal them before sending them back out onto the battlefield.
The other big change Wildfrost makes to gameplay is the counter system. Rather than energy costs to play cards, only one card per round can be played. Each unit has its own set of actions it can make once its counter runs down to zero, after which it'll reset to its original value. This adds a turn-based flavour and it took me a moment to adjust to that mindset of strategic thinking.
I'm really looking forward to playing this when it releases. I can't wait to discover the different clans, abilities, and charms that I'll be able to experiment with. I'll also probably choose Snoof to be my companion whenever possible because he's the bestest snow doggo.
I'd also like to give a shout-out to the member of staff running the booth that told me to wear the headphones - the music was delightful! Thank you for sharing the concept art for the instruments with me too!
I played Wildfrost too (Bertie here again), lured in a similar way to Liv, and from various recommendations from people I bumped into at EGX - there seemed to be a lot of buzz about Wildfrost. Liv's Monster Train meets Slay the Spire analogy is spot on, too, although I'd also chuck Magic: The Gathering, owing to the fact you can play creatures as well as abilities.
It took me a while to get my head around, though, especially as I somehow missed the tutorial. A lot of Wildfrost looks and feels really familiar to those other games, but it's not, not quite. The main reason is that countdown timers - when they run out, a character card usually auto attacks - linked to your playing cards, in that when you play one, it ticks down one. But you can mess with these timers too, so there's a lot of strategy clearly tied up in it.
Familiar and yet not so familiar, and it's absolutely gorgeous, with the kind of bright and exaggerated presentation a game like HearthStone turned heads with, as will Wildfrost, I imagine, when it comes out next year. One to watch.
Street Fighter 6
Capcom's big hitter had a fairly low-key presence on the EGX showfloor, but the most important thing was that there were plenty of demo pods to jump on - and for four days, a small part of the ExCel Centre felt something like a modern day arcade where dozens of people were rapt by the latest and quite possibly greatest iteration of this iconic fighting game.
What is it that could make Street Fighter 6 special? In part it's how it folds in all the mechanics from recent entries, such as 3's parry and 4's focus, into something made all the more approachable thanks to the (optional) modern control system that apes Smash Bros. and lets you pull off specials with a single directional input. In part it's also because this is a product of a Capcom that's on a roll, having restored glory to the Resident Evil series and finally broken the west with Monster Hunter.
But mostly, as the bustle around Street Fighter 6 on the EGX show floor attested, it's because this is one of those rare, incredible games that can break out beyond some of game's traditional boundaries and bring people together. I'm already counting down the days until I can play it again.
Tiny Book Shop, PC
Books are, by far, my greatest vice - my 'To Read' pile is over 25 volumes high and growing - so Tiny Bookshop easily caught my attention at EGX and I'm incredibly happy it did. A relaxing management sim, Tiny Bookshop sees you travelling around a seaside town on the noble quest of selling books out of a wooden wagon, which, yes, you can customise.
Running the bookshop caravan is, on the surface, quite simple - you stock the shelves with pre-owned books purchased through the local newspaper, before sitting back and watching the customers come to you. Yet, with limited shelf space and six genres to sell, organising your bookshop may turn you into a cutthroat bookseller despite the cosy aesthetic. Do you fill your shelves simply with what's popular or create a careful genre balance to appeal to a wider audience at the risk of lower profits?
I brought boxes of crime novels from someone's attic during my playthrough, but my hope of them becoming best sellers was dashed by customers deciding they preferred the classic. Thankfully, I still made enough money to buy fairy lights to decorate the caravan with!
Tiny Book Shop is in early development, with a planned release window of spring 2024, but, no matter the wait, I'm looking forward to returning to this little shop by the sea.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, PS5
I wish I had been able to spend longer with this demo. I had just beaten the big tiger monster before I died (again), and my short time with Wo Long was up. Speaking to others who've played the demo on console, I've learnt there was a boss at the end that I never even got to see!
As a Soulsborne-like game, I knew it would be difficult and so attempted to spend less time looking at the depth of Wo Long and more time trying to see the breadth of it. Obviously I didn't do very well, considering I missed the latter half of the demo.
Don't get me wrong though, I had a great time with it! I'm always up for the difficult challenge of From Software's games, and Wo Long has had my attention since it was announced. I enjoyed the combat and the particular emphasis on blocking and parrying with the correct timing, but wished I had been able to explore the martial arts more.
One of the features that really stands out in my mind is the dynamic that vertical movement adds. You can jump and scale up walls, adding another dimension to exploration and combat. Movement in general felt much smoother and faster to me than previous Soulsbornes I've played. The combination of that fluidity and the martial arts is something I'm really looking forward to getting to grips with when the game comes out and I'm free to spend as much time as I need to git gud.
So one of the other games with slightly wacky controls, or at least those that you'll do a double-take when you see, is Morse. And no, it's not an Inspector Morse game, because that would be, I don't know, boring? Or maybe amazing? It's a Morse Code game. And it works a bit like Battleships in that you ender Morse Code sequences of dots and dashes to pinpoint certain squares and then launch bombs at them.
There's a demo of the game on Steam, so you can play it at home now, but to do so won't quite recreate the experience of playing it on a replica Morse Code machine at the EGX show. Even though you know it's a prop you're playing on, the wooden-boxed machine, and era-appropriate headphones add such an atmosphere to the experience tóhat you could be cooped up in a submarine in World War 2 playing these war games for real (though I doubt it was quite so simple).
Secrets of Soil, PC
I'm cheating a bit when I say I played this, because it was my partner who played it, but I was watching so I'm going to claim it all the same. Secrets of Soil is an educational voyage more than it is a game, but it's a fascinating one: a literal voyage into the soil and all of the connected, underground networks that are so important to the world we live in, and an explanation of them all as you fly through.
I tend to gravitate towards alternate controllers at shows, and my highlight was a faithful creation of Teletext from this year's Leftfield Collection.
Telusfax is a detective game where you button through colourful listings in order to work out an assigned list of personalities from a sheet of paper. This simple setup is an effective reminder of the joys and frustrations of how Teletext operated - from having to painstakingly return to previous pages when you've taken a wrong turn, to the charming sight of numbers cycling through at the top of the screen while you wait for your query to load.
The cherry on top, of course, was the presentation beyond the game itself - a bulky CRT humming away and a remote control to play it with, complete with an endearing note asking attendees to wiggle the power cable if inputs aren't registering. You can play Telusfax yourself courtesy of Itch.io, but I suspect - as with all the best nostalgia trips - half the magic is playing on original hardware.