The Steam Game Festival - Summer Edition: Demo Impressions Lightning Round
Having played the best, I now play the rest. Here are more demo impressions from The Steam Game Festival that didn't leave the same mark.
The Steam Game Festival – Summer Edition’s first iteration has come and gone, and I feel like it was an overall success. Lots of up and coming games got fresh eyes on them to drum up interest and feedback. I took it upon myself to play huge swathes of them, and I’ve already covered the games that most stood out to me. But that’s only the 10 most impressive games of the 24 in total I played.
As before, I’ve written impressions and limited myself to two paragraphs per game. They aren’t as universally good quality this time around, but there’s still some potential gems buried away here. So, here’s the lightning round of my remaining demo impressions from The Steam Game Festival – Summer Edition.
A squad based RTS with steampunk mechs in an alternate history set a little after World War I. It’s set in the same world as the acclaimed board game Scythe. In practice, Iron Harvest plays a lot like Company of Heroes with a WWI skin featuring steampunk mechs. You build up your forces, take and hold resource points on the map, and try to beat the enemy before they beat you. I was looking forward to this game, but I honestly found myself quite underwhelmed.
The ability to pick up weapons from defeated enemies and change up your infantry armaments on the fly is neat, and the presentation is quite nice. But I just found that the gameplay is missing something. The cover system is very barren and requires you to build most of it, and units just don’t feel like they’re as effective as they should be. Unit control feels unresponsive, the mechs are visually impressive but clunky to move, and I just found myself failing to engage with it. It all felt very hollow and lacked any sort of punch or X factor when playing. I hope this can be improved before launch, but it ultimately feels like it’s too barren an experience as it stands.
The Survivalists is a somewhat standard survival/simulation game. You’re a castaway on an island and have to scrounge for resources to survive, thrive, and eventually escape. In addition to the colourful pixel art, The Survivalists’ main gimmick are the friendly monkeys you can bring on your side. These can be trained to gather materials for you, mass produce basic crafting, or aid you in combat.
In practice however, I found the controls and UI to be fairly imprecise and unclear. Multiple times I thought I was teaching my monkey pal a new task and assigning him orders, only for it to do nothing or go completely awry. The system needs a little cleaning up, I think. Beyond this, The Survivalists is colourful, functional, and entertaining enough. It’s fairly generic survival stuff beyond the presentation at this early point, though. With that said, there did seem to be the promise of ancient ruins, pirate treasures, and other intriguing things to unearth from hints gleaned in the world. Hopefully there’s more spark and variety in the full thing.
Builders of Egypt
Back in 1999, Impressions Games released an Egyptian flavoured city builder called Pharaoh. This is a game that my teenage history nerd self played quite a lot of. Apparently, so did the makers of Builders of Egypt. This is effectively an attempt at making that classic game on a modern engine. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be anything on offer here that I couldn’t get from just replaying Pharaoh. And I don’t mean that to be a reflection of the early nature of development; it just seems like it will be a lesser game even when complete.
Pharaoh had real charm to its presentation, sound, and general design that I just don’t feel in Builders of Egypt. There’s a lack of colour and personality here that no amount of historical accuracy and high fidelity Unreal Engine lighting can replace. Now to be fair to Builders of Egypt, it’s a perfectly serviceable city builder with a solid theme. It’s possible that with enough time and effort, the mechanics and options for building cities here will really stand out. I just don’t see it currently, is all. It’s not a great feeling to want to go and replay a 20-year-old game after playing a new demo, unfortunately.
After finishing this demo, I went to check who had developed this. I thought that this was someone trying to capitalise on the Stronghold name and legacy with a cheap knockoff, or else they’d managed to get their hands on the IP. To my surprise, it’s still the same developer that’s had the series since the original game. Sadly, that’s not the only thing that hasn’t changed since the first game, either.
Stronghold: Warlords is a city-builder/RTS with a focus on building and defending a castle or stronghold. Warlords is an eastern-themed one, and has a diplomacy feature by which you can bring the titular Warlords into your fold for bonuses. But the entire thing is ugly, slapdash, and controls awfully. Again, it feels like there hasn’t been any forward development or improvement from the very first Stronghold game(s) almost two decades ago. This will need a lot of work to make it even slightly comparable to those games. Given the poor reception Stronghold 3 got, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Another survival game, and this one just begging comparison to the book (and film adaptation of) The Martian. The aim of Occupy Mars is exactly what the title says. You’re an astronaut on Mars and you have to gather resources and build up the facilities needed for future colonisation prospects. The gimmick for this one is that it is intensely micro-management heavy. For example, let’s say you want to get ore from a rock. Generally, survival games will let you hit it twice with a pickaxe and then pick up the ore. In Occupy Mars, you’ll start by breaking up rocks into smaller chunks a few times until they’re small enough for your rover’s crane arm to load them. Then you’ll be manually moving and opening/closing the crane’s claw to load chunks of ore into your trailer.
That’s only the beginning of the tiny details you’ll need to control and pay attention to. How about manually setting power consumption, dragging power cables around and placing them in the right sockets? Or having separate oxygen metres for your spacesuit and interior structures? I generally don’t mind this genre of game, but Occupy Mars felt way too technical and fiddly for me to gel with it. That said, this is absolutely a dream for a small niche of players who crave that level of simulation. I respect its commitment to detail-oriented gameplay and wish it well, so check it out if this is your thing.
Haven’s a potentially interesting one, but the short demo didn’t give me a lot to go off. It starts with a gorgeously vivid animated cutscene full of life and colour. The actual gameplay can’t match those visuals, but it definitely tries to match the aesthetic. Said gameplay is very movement centric, as you control your character(s) and glide over the landscape to collect resources and investigate the world. At the tail end of the demo, it surprised me by becoming an RPG, featuring an ATB-esque battle system. You control two characters with their inputs mapped to each half of the controller, and you unleash their appropriate actions in combos or sequence as appropriate.
More than anything, Haven is aiming to be a story-driven experience. The two characters are young and in a relationship together, making that abundantly clear in their early actions and dialogue. It’s all set amidst a somewhat fantastical sci-fi backdrop, and there’s definitely enough threads that pique my curiosity. At the same time, it could very easily crash and burn hard based on execution, and there’s a couple red flags in the dialogue that make me worried about that. So I’ve got a curious eye on this one, and we’ll see if it pans out.
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of Learning Factory. It’s not unlike Factorio, that delightfully complex game in which you build massive automated resource collection networks. The look, layout, and mechanics of Learning Factory are almost identical to that, but on a very simple level. Despite this, it’s got a very stylised appearance, and the machines are being built in order to sell goods to cats and satisfy their needs.
Just when I thought this was a kid’s first Factorio, that’s when it kicked off the learning machines and data analytics angle. You take the data from selling goods to cats and then refine it via these learning machines to perfect your algorithm and maximise your sales. There’s even a tutorial and links to educational sources for more about learning machines. By the looks of it, the developers Luden.io have a focus on making educational games, so on that front I could see this being a useful resource. It’s not something that I’d want to play over its contemporaries, but I nonetheless respect this approach and wish the devs all the best in this undertaking!
Ostranauts is a top-down adventure/simulation where you get a derelict spaceship working and set off into space with it, hiring your crew and making life work out there. Unfortunately, that description ends up being far more alluring than the game is to play. It’s another case of having incredibly technical mechanics that end up being really esoteric in practice. There’s an audience for this, but it isn’t for me. Instead, I just found it very unclear how I was supposed to proceed with actions and tasks, and struggled to even begin doing so.
In fairness, this seemed to be one of the least ready-to-experience demos I played; so much of this could just be technical difficulties. Lots of trial and error was required to even really begin, only to find certain aspects clearly bugged and broken. This is a game in dire need of a manual, but that’s currently complete absent. I get the feeling that I’d be able to fly a real space shuttle easier than I could a ship in Ostranauts, at least until there’s actual documentation present. There’s not really a lot I can say about this one, unfortunately. Alas, I’m not interested in seeing more of it.
Based on its appearance, I assumed Mr. Prepper was going to play something like Fallout Shelter. In practice, it’s much more a standard survival game with resource collection and crafting. Even so, the unique perspective and dystopian “hyper American Dream” setting and narrative makes for a fairly compelling time.
You have to manage your usual gauges for survival and scrounge what resources you can, but you’re also being watched by government agents. There will be routine inspections of your house, so you have to hide all evidence of your secret bunker and illicit activities. This means keeping your house above ground in complete order, covering up workbenches, putting bunker entrances under a rug, and so on. It’s an interesting little spin on things, and I have to say that I’m intrigued by Mr. Prepper. Will keep an eye on this one.
I’m still surprised that this is made by Obsidian. But then, considering the systems are largely just adding more survival and crafting aspects to The Outer Worlds, it’s not all that unbelievable. Grounded is yet another survival game, but this plays with the Honey I Shrunk The Kids formula. You’re a child/teenager who has been shrunk to the size of a bug, and has to survive a suburban backyard amidst an assortment of now very large insects.
Like so many survival games, the general mechanics and crafting options on offer here are nothing new. The aesthetic and concept of your resources being chunks of grass stalks and bug parts is remarkably endearing, though. There’s also a lot of nods to the era of ’80s/’90s aesthetics and a general Weird Science feel to it all, though. I’m not sure how much content and variety this will feature, but Grounded definitely felt more charming than I expected. Worth a look at the very least.
Arietta of Spirits
At a glance, Arietta of Spirits ticks a lot of boxes for a somewhat generic indie game. Colourful pixel art, classic action/adventure mechanics that evoke memories of classic games — 2D Zelda titles in this case — and a story that promises to be emotional and personal? That’s all here, and there wasn’t anything in my time with Arietta of Spirits that I hadn’t experienced like that before. Still, that’s disingenuous of me to say. Something doesn’t have to be unique to be good, and Arietta’s demo was good.
It’s pretty, playable, charming and fairly well-written. The concept of the spirit realm bleeding into the physical has lots of potential to work with. Gameplay mechanics were somewhat bland though, with little in the way of unlocks or special moves beyond slash with sword and dodge roll. There’s nothing bad or out of place here, it just hasn’t really done much to elevate itself. I’d need to see how Arietta of Spirits plays in later parts before I can make a solid judgement call here.
Wild Terra 2: New Lands
Wild Terra 2: New Lands is another survival game, but this time it’s an MMORPG. You start in the wilderness and have to gather resources to survive, eventually building up a base and developing technology. Skills will increase through use, and some scavenged items will be higher quality than others. Once again, nothing that the genre hasn’t seen before, but it’s got some depth and a decent amount of options in its tech tree to entice players.
What killed the game for me, then, was the MMORPG aspect. As an Australian, I connected to the Asia Pacific server first, only to find that lag and rubber-banding was pretty extreme. I tested out the gameplay systems and found them enticing enough, but swapped to the US server to see if performance was better. Technically, the latency was improved, but in exchange? Everywhere I moved to in every direction was filled with the camps and huts of other players, and almost all usable resources were now impossible to find and respawning insanely slowly. For a new character, it was practically unplayable. If this isn’t fixed or addressed by launch, Wild Terra 2 is likely dead on arrival. Some potential here, but the current state is worrisome.
Earth From Another Sun
This is a lawsuit waiting to happen. I feel like Activision-Blizzard is going to smite me just for even speaking about the existence of this game. Still, here it goes: Earth From Another Sun is a blatant asset flip that shamelessly plunders visuals and designs from the likes of StarCraft. If the thumbnail wasn’t a dead giveaway, then the fact that I was fighting a slightly modified Hydralisk almost immediately was. Mechanically, it’s a horde-mode FPS that tasks you with killing enough units in a time limit to progress to the next wave, gathering pickups and loot along the way.
There is so much wrong with this game, quite frankly. It’s a visual mess; not just for the cheaply-designed or copied assets but also just in how readable the UI and systems are. Nothing describes trying to figure out what I was doing better than “trial by fire,” as I had no recourse but to wing everything. And yet? I couldn’t help but find the idea of the game enthralling. A fast-paced and frantic FPS with numerous progression and customisation elements? I could see myself playing that. Or hell, just make a StarCraft FPS. Anything that isn’t this much of a mess. Steer clear of this one, but do take note of the ideas in the process, developers!
Speaking of an FPS based on an RTS franchise, who else remembers Command and Conquer: Renegade? Petroglyph does, because that’s what they’re attempting to reimagine with EarthBreakers. It’s a team-based FPS where you use resources collected by harvesting or through kills on building up an RTS-style base. You can use money on upgrades for you and your team, eventually producing base defences and vehicles to deploy. Ultimately, the last base standing is the winner.
References to the original C&C Renegade notwithstanding, EarthBreakers is a decent proof of concept. It’s going to need a lot more work to really shine, though. Movement was very floaty, and weapons didn’t feel particularly satisfying to shoot or land. Hitboxes were an awkward affair, and currently the only vehicle on offer are tanks so there’s not a lot of variety. As much as I love the concept and really hope for it to be polished and delivered, I’m not sure that Petroglyph has the chops to land a strong FPS that feels solid to play. Let’s hope I’m proven wrong.
And that’s everything I played for the Summer Edition of The Steam Game Festival. The event is over now, but many of these games will be developed further and available in the future. Some are worth keeping an eye on, and some are less so. But overall, this was a good event, and the availability of demos is only a good for customers.
Here’s hoping the trend will continue, and I shall likely to do this again for future events. For now, if anything piques your interest, you can click the links on each game in the piece above to wishlist them on Steam.