The Game Awards have become a winter tradition, an E3 for Christmas time that promises big announcements and honors for the year’s best games. This year, in addition to a monumental showcase on the main stage, Geoff Keighley shined a spotlight on a few smaller titles through The Game Festival on Steam. Players were able to download more than a dozen limited-time-only demos from various smaller titles in development. Getting a taste of what’s next is always fun, and a few of the selections shined above the rest. Here are a few names you should remember going into 2020.
The Drifter | Point and click noir by Powerhoof
You can’t be too harsh when you’re checking out a demo. Some long-form games don’t work well without hours of setup. Some mechanics aren’t easy to pick up in a half-hour period. Levels are often placeholder, animations lack polish, and the excuses never end. Going into these scenarios, your best bet is using your imagination to try to see what the developer has in mind. It’s only the rare occasion when everything comes together into a polished sampler that leaves you wanting more, which is exactly what happened when I loaded up the demo for Powerhoof’s The Drifter, a point and click that lets you hitch a ride to Hell and back.
The demo immediately grabs you with a beautifully rendered train roaring through a cityscape. Anyone familiar with Powerhoof’s Crawl knows their skill when it comes to stylized pixel art. That attention to detail continues into The Drifter, making for a game that sets your imagination ablaze. You play as titular drifter Mick Carter as he rolls into town to attend his mother’s funeral. As you fend off mysterious gunmen, meet an overeager teenager, and try to find a phone charger, Mick’s every thought comes through Bastion-style narration and top-notch voice acting.
The game also features a unique control scheme if you’re looking to get your adventure on with a gamepad. You can move freely with the left stick and highlight interactive items around you with the right stick. It was pretty intuitive, and hopefully it continues into the main game even if it bore an “experimental” label. After spending a half-hour unraveling mysteries, I’m ready for more. Alas, The Drifter has a “When It’s Done” release schedule on Steam so it’ll probably be a bit until the game comes out.
Chicory: A Colorful Tale | A coloring book brought to life
When I saw that the creator of Wandersong was part of a team behind one of the Game Festival’s demos, I knew what to try next. After playing a small chunk of Chicory: A Colorful Tale, I got the good vibes I was looking for. You play as a dog apprentice to the wielder of a magic paintbrush. In one unexplained instant, all the world’s color fades away. With your master missing in action, you take up the tool and try to restore a few hues to the world around you.
Chicory already contains all the great dialogue and good-natured characters that I expected from the team’s pedigree. Besides Wandersong, the team has talent from both Night in the Woods and Celeste, and you can certainly see those influences shine through. Your magical tool can paint anything in the world and the borders around it. You can change the color of your clothes, make matching outfits for neighbors or just draw messages in the ground. You can even bring in a co-op buddy if you want two people coloring things in, which will likely be an amazing way to play with a small child.
The painting mechanics also lean into exploration, opening alternate paths and letting you solve puzzles. There was no combat, but there were plenty of collectible clothes to try on even in this brief playthrough. The only drawback was that the color didn’t always stay put as you transitioned from scene to scene. It’s unclear how much backtracking you’ll be doing on this adventure, but it would be amazing to find drawings from hours in the past on a return trip home.
Best of the Rest | A Shocking switchblade
Acid Knife: A second game from Powerhoof, Acid Knife feels a lot earlier than most Game Festival demos. It features several clever nods to this fact, including a console command that shows up whenever you need to respawn. The game casts you as a skeleton man wielding weapons against realistic and horrifying skeletal creations. You get your titular knife, a sword with more reach, and a bow and arrow. Each strike or shot aims to dislodge gems from your foes into order to unlock the next room, although all that behavior feels temporary.
You can attack in all directions at all times, something skilled players will likely take advantage as they execute spectacular trick shoots. Going just by the style of this brief snippet, Acid Knife is a game I want to see more of. For now, it’s hard to truly judge the game based on the demo’s limits as it just doesn’t feel fully cooked as of yet.
System Shock: If you’ve heard of any game from The Game Festival’s lineup, it’s likely to be System Shock. A remake of the groundbreaking 1994 PC shooter, Nightdive Studios’ project should not be confused with the System Shock sequel still allegedly in development by the makers of Underworld Ascendant. The history of both games is one of numerous delays and mishaps, and that sadly continues into this demo. Requiring a patch to function properly over its two-day existence, many still reported issues getting the demo up to speed. Those who were able to play got a visual treat, but this pre-alpha demo doesn’t seem significantly further along than any other showcase Kickstarter backers have seen. The game’s Steam page now promises a 2020 release, and we’ll have to see if that pans out.
Best of the Rest | Eastward toward an adventure
Eastward: Chucklefish’s contribution to The Game Festival alongside new developer Pixpil, Eastward takes place in a fully realized vision of the worlds of Japanese RPGs circa the Super Nintendo. You run into towns that feel like the slums of Shibuya, complete with kids crowded over a NeoGeo-type arcade machine. That transitions into mythical woods with monsters to battle using a dual character setup. John handles the heavy-duty weaponry while child Sam casts magic spells, each contributing to pretty standard puzzles and combat scenarios. Presentation here is the selling point, although it was hard to take in the world when the demo drops you into the middle of the narrative with no context.
Roki: Sometimes, demos end at just the right time and Roki, a colorful adventure from the U.K.-based Polygon Treehouse, was not one of those games. Nothing was bad about this brief trek through the snow, but the demo ends far too quickly to leave an impression.
You play as Tove, a small girl interacting with creatures from Scandinavian folklore. The world is high on detail, but not retro-inspired, making for a nice change of pace in this demo marathon. While vision-blocking trees in the foreground were a little annoying, the backgrounds never ceased to impress. Much like Eastward, the presentation was more engrossing than the gameplay. An item combination puzzle right out of the ’90s and a few spots of pixel hunting made me iffy on wanting to play more. I was just waiting for the game to kick in, and Roki instead kicked me back to the desktop and thus is the nature of the noble game demo.