9 Exciting Demos From Next Fest 10/21

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

Steam's doing another Next Fest, so that means it's time for me to do another demo roundup post. There are approximately 700 demos this time, most of which I had already marked ignore from seeing them on Steam previously. I went through probably a few hundred more store pages yesterday and ignored most of those as well, which left maybe 30 that felt small enough to be on this list and that I hadn't previously played demos for. Since making games is hard, only 9 of those were promising enough and in a good enough state that I wanted to recommend them. Let's get to it!


Rise of the Third Power

Rise of the Third Power (Stegosoft Games/Dangen, TBA)


This is the game I'm most familiar with on the list, because I backed its Kickstarter run back in 2018 with an expectation it would release that year. As you can probably guess from its presence in this post, it didn't come out in 2018, and this was just about the last time I ever risked backing a video game KS.


Still, not that it's at last finally playable in some form, it's pretty promising. It's running in RPG Maker, but it looks and especially sounds far more professional than any RPGM game I've ever seen. Combat seems to be focused on setting up synergies and there's weapon crafting and skill trees to help with that. So far so promising, but what I played of the demo only had a brief lore dump at the beginning, so it's impossible to comment on the quality of the story, which will be the most important part for me. I can say that they desperately need a copy editor, though. That brief lore dump managed to drop the apostrophe from every single possessive.


Mahokenshi

Mahokenshi (Game Source Studio, Q1 2022)


I'm deeply skeptical of their scheduled release date since this game is covered in alpha stickers and it's so early that they don't even have the right model for the one playable character. Still, while it clearly has a long way to go, I'm very interested in what it's putting forward. You're a magical warrior doing quests on a chain of fantasy islands, and you're accomplishing that with Slay the Spire-style card battling. But unlike StS, there's no separation between the overworld and combat. You can spend energy or cards to move around the map, terrain has effects on combat stats, and you engage enemies simply by getting near them. You're on a timer to reach the end of the map within 35 turns, but there are also optional villages, quests, and card drops just slightly out of your way that might offer nice rewards. If they can deliver on this game's promise, it could be a real breath of fresh air for a genre that's been getting a little same-y. And not for the last time on this list!


Alina of the Arena

Alina of the Arena (PINIX, 2022)


No need to stay in suspense: the other card battler I'm talking about is Alina of the Arena. There's no overworld map in this one, but combat takes place on a hexagon made of hexes. Your cards give you movement effects on top of standard StS-style buffs and attacks, and you can also find weapons and equipment lying on the floor of the arena.


You get an elite fight after five battles, but you have three stacks of events to pick from to set your progression. You could take the store event on stack 2, but maybe it's better to get some more money first from the fight on stack 1? Even better, the non-combat events have multiple choices. You can train instead of resting (exactly like StS, admittedly), buy equipment instead of cards, and always have two choices in random events.


It's very hard to tell if a card battler has enough variety to survive from just a demo, but the mechanics here have a ton of promise.


Move78

Move78 (Michael Josephs, "Soon")


This game is about as transparently Zero Escape as you can get, although it restrained itself a little by only having 8 characters instead of 9. That shakeup aside, a bunch of seemingly unconnected people have been dumped into a mysterious building full of escape room puzzles without any memory of how they got there, and they're playing some kind of game led by an evil mastermind. I'm convinced by the potential of the escape room puzzles so far, which depart from ZE tradition by being fully navigable in first person 3D.


I'm less sure about the writing. Part of that is inevitable: the 15 minutes of demo I played weren't exactly ever going to drop an Uchikoshi twist in that time frame. But I am a little worried that it seems to be going a bit harder on the Saw angle than ZE ever did. While there is an option to censor the worst of the body horror stuff, I'm not thrilled that it's going there at all.


Anno Mutationem

Anno Mutationem (ThinkingStars/Lightning Games, 2021)


AM showed up on my last indie games list as well, but I'm letting it get the two-peat because (a) I didn't make it to 10 this time anyway and (b) I've actually played a demo now. I'm happy to say its blend of high-res sprites and 3D environments looks even better in motion than it does in screenshots, and also that they nailed the atmosphere and music. The combat might be good, but the demo didn't really do enough with it for me to tell if it can stay interesting for a whole game.


What I'm more concerned about, though, is the writing. It's not bad, but the devs are (I think) Chinese, and they've either tried to translate it themselves or gone with someone whose grasp of English is just shy of fluent. It's all perfectly comprehensible and largely free of grammatical errors, but many of the sentences nonetheless don't pass muster as something a real person would actually say. I am hopeful that this is a temporary state, though, because the game page says that it'll have full audio in English, Japanese, and Chinese, and there's currently no voice acting to speak of. If it gets another localization pass before it goes to recording, it might come out fine. And if it doesn't, well, maybe the Japanese text will be better.


Hunt the Night

Hunt the Night (Moonlight Games/DANGEN, TBA)


You kind of have to look past the edgelord name on this one. If you can, there's a pretty cool mix of Hades-style combat (I am not saying it's as good as Hades, mind) and classic Resident Evil-style exploration of a creepy mansion. Another way of describing the combat might be Death's Door, but what I saw really wasn't enough to tell which game is more apt. It's 2D and mostly melee combat, you have a ranged attack, and you roll around a lot.


Honestly, the big selling point for me here is that it's survival horror that isn't going all-out on jump scares or gore. That's unfortunately a rarity these days. I just want to put gems in impractical statues without seeing anybody lose a limb, thank you very much.


Young Souls

Young Souls (1P2P/The Arcade Crew, Q4 2021)


A co-op brawler featuring two twins who've found their way to a goblin world and need to poke around in dungeons. I'm not a fan of the design of the main characters, but I like everything else about the art style and there seems to be a lot of potential to customize the equipment and skills of your character.


Combat mostly feels good, too. I say "mostly" because even though enemies get a dodge roll, your characters are inexplicably only able to do a little dash that feels inadequate and runs out of stamina after two uses. I doubt there's much chance of that getting fixed given that the game is already out as a Stadia exclusive (lol), so here's hoping that everything else is enough to make up for it or that you can get abilities to make it better.


Cleo: A Pirate's Tale

Cleo: A Pirate's Tale (Christopher Schultz/Greycap, Late 2021)


Cleo is probably my pick of the bunch. It's an adventure game that's probably a bit like the old LucasArts games, but I haven't played any of those and can't say for sure. You're Cleo, a girl who wants to be a pirate but lives on a boring island full of people who don't want to be pirates. That situation lasts exactly until you find a ghost in a fish.


I didn't play much of the demo because it was obvious that I'm going to buy it on release, so that's about all I can say. The writing and voicework are on-point. It's got great pixel art. I'll be sad if it's not good.


Ex-Zodiac

Ex-Zodiac (Ben Hickling/Pixeljam, Early 2022)x


And finally, it's Ex-Zodiac, which is even more obviously Star Fox than Move78 was obviously Zero Escape. It's so obviously SF, in fact, that there's very little point to me telling you more about it. If you've played Star Fox, it's that, except it doesn't star Fox. If you haven't played it, go watch a video of Star Fox and just plug your ears whenever Fox talks. It's like that.


Joking aside, the only thing that really distinguishes it to an occasional Arwing pilot like myself is that it's a bit harder than I remember something like SF64 being and the music obviously doesn't include the iconic Corneria theme for the level that is obviously Corneria.


I can't comment on how the writing compares because the demo included one line of text at the beginning and then nothing else. I've got to imagine it will include crewmates because how could it not, but I can't confirm whether the player will be asked to perform any rolling maneuvers that resemble barrels.

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