Winter may have had us trapped in semi-stasis with freezing temperatures and fresh lockdowns, but there’s still some cosy elements you can always rely on to keep out the chill. A fluffy blanket, a perfectly proportioned cup of tea and the heart-warming promise of lovingly crafted virtual adventures. With many video games scheduled for release in 2021, despite the icy atmosphere, the year was already looking to be the hottest yet. And what better way to start welcoming the fresh new energy of spring than with the first Steam Game Festival of the year!
Oodles and oodles of demos? Check. Gameplay live streams throughout the day? Check. Q&As with developers and juicy insights? Double check! Running from 3rd – 9th February, this Steam Game Festival’s smorgasbord of goodies continued the tradition of topping its previous incarnations and getting players hyped for an exciting new world of indie virtual experiences. So naturally your resident Steam Festival fairy flew over to soak up the magic and returned with her Top 3 Winter Wonders!
What if Clank had never found Ratchet and had to navigate a harsh, unforgiving world alone? You’d very likely have Retro Machina. An isometric puzzle adventure with RPG elements, Retro Machina from Orbit Studios sets the scene of the domed city of Endeavor, the only city left standing in a long-devastated world and entirely inhabited by robots. Everything must work perfectly. Then you, a humble robot worker, malfunction. Thrown out of this perfect city and perceived as a threat, you must journey across the world to find a way to fix yourself and locate intelligent life, unravelling the mysteries of the world and Endeavor’s origins along the way.
I will forever be a sucker for striking art styles and Retro Machina does not disappoint. Drawing retrofuturistic inspiration from 20th century sci-fi illustrations and works by figures like Jacque Fresco, the hand-drawn visuals are nothing short of stunning. Surpassing isometric masterpieces that came before like Bastion, rich varied colour schemes and detailed settings transport the player to another world, aided by gorgeous lighting effects. Vines and ivy reclaim the remains of machinery and giant dessicated automatons silently staring into the beyond. The gameplay animation is also silky smooth and blends perfectly with the intricate scenes.
As well as being able to throw a decent right hook or two, your little robot worker has the ability to hack and gain control of other robots. Control then shifts to a twin stick setup, a la Brothers, controlling yourself with the left stick and your “willing” sidekick with the right. Mastering this ability is imperative for solving puzzles and traversing obstacles in order to progress. Like any new thing, it may take a couple of attempts to get the knack, but the execution is fluid and once you’ve got it, you’ll be ready for anything.
Know what else I’m a sucker for? A sublime soundtrack. Retro Machina boasts both hauntingly beautiful ambience and punchy combat backdrops. Perfectly reflecting the exquisite visuals, each track is atmospheric and illustrative on its own; the ambient tracks in particular seem infused with levels of melancholy and reflection.
The future may be unknown, but the future of isometric adventures is looking extremely bright with Retro Machina leading the way.
PLANNED RELEASE DATE: Q1 2021
PLATFORMS: PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Wishlist it on Steam HERE.
‘Choices Matter’ is a mechanic that experienced a huge boom in the wake of Telltale Games’s success and shows no signs of fading anytime soon. But few titles really explore the true weight of it. DigiTales Interactive’s Lacuna is one of them and turns the dial up to 11. The debut game from the new developer, Lacuna is a pixel art sci-fi noir adventure literally spanning time and space and breaking with traditional adventure tropes. You play as Neil Conrad, a CDI agent called in to investigate a murder that will turn his life and the solar system upside down. Every detective skill he possesses will be tested and the consequences could be of planetary proportions.
If you’re already thinking of practising your quick reload to sidestep a wrong choice, think again! This bad boy is all auto on that front. Manual saves are not an option and progress up to a save point is lost if you quit. As someone who is in the habit of reloading a save if a character so much as slightly frowns at me, this is terrifying, but also strangely exciting. Added to this, conversations are non-repeating and choices far from clear cut right and wrong, some just having no right answers — do you trade your family’s safety for public safety, peace for terrifying truths? This complex and unwavering journey coupled with the option of time-restricted responses inspires a whole new level of investment and immersion for the player.
During a case, Neil will have to ask questions, collect evidence and connect the dots in order to get to the bottom of things. A button press activates ‘Investigation Mode’, which highlights interesting areas that can be explored further. But the ultimate detection tool is the Cell, a nifty device that stores clues, conversations and information and also allows Neil to submit reports and conclusions. After examining all the evidence and information, you must choose your conclusion and submit your answer to the CDI. All of these elements are extremely slick and well executed, creating the feel of genuine complex detective work while keeping the focus streamlined.
One of the gripes I had with Chinatown Detective Agency, a similar cyber detective adventure, was researching outside information through Google or other means in order to solve cases — great in theory, but strangely a big immersion and focus-breaker in practice and also alienating for those with poor internet or without smart devices. Lacuna keeps everything in-house while still requiring concentration and attention to detail.
Combining all this with fantastic pixel visuals utilising multiple planes and ingenious lighting effects, Lacuna looks set to be one hell of a debut for DigiTales and to shake up the adventure genre hugely!
PLANNED RELEASE DATE: 2021
Wishlist it on Steam HERE.
Cats and the Other Lives
In modern gaming, linear gameplay and simplified mechanics are considered aspects to be avoided at all costs. But games that adopt these traits can have often the most powerful impact; that is certainly the case with Cultic Games’s Cats and the Other Lives. A point & click adventure with a feline lead and your Steam Festival fairy being a complete sucker for cats over here? Sold! Cats and the Other Lives puts you in the paws of Aspen, a house cat who has been a part of the Mason family for as long as they can remember. When grandfather and family patriarch Bernard dies, the whole family are brought together again and deeply buried tensions and memories are brought to the surface. Through Aspen, you experience the moments that made or broke the Masons and the secrets that even now still bind them.
It’s very rare to find a game that fully embraces an animal’s nature and limitations — often non-anthropomorphic animal protagonists possess physical abilities far beyond their natural capabilities. In Cats and the Other Lives, there’s no bones about it: Aspen is a cat. She can pad around the house, jump on furniture, pick up small things in her mouth and sniff items to investigate them and pick up their scent. But she can’t open doors unless they are already open or opened for her. She can’t jump to unnatural heights, she has to climb things or have a human help her. In fact, the narrative of the game is almost solely driven by her felinity; humans conversations are observed or overheard by searching for food, looking for something to play with or settling down to sleep in her cat bed.
Through this approach, the conversations feel more personal and poignant, seeing people at their most vulnerable emotionally. One wonderfully executed aspect is Aspen’s memories; having been part of the family for years, she has seen much and, at certain points, ghost-like figures appear and play out scenes of moments from the Mason family’s past. This combined with the snippets of conversation she picks up builds a beautifully raw and complex picture of the Mason family’s history.
Even the visuals and sound seem to reflect our furry friend as she navigates the house. Pixel art at its finest, the settings are beautifully intricate and elaborate as are the character animations. The faces of the characters however are blank slates — to a cat, all human faces would look the same and emotion comes through in tone and body language. Without going into spoiler territory, there are some key moments when this comes into play, one of which gets the blood racing! The soundtrack too is eerily atmospheric, mixing piano with strangely animalistic sounds reverberating through the house. Human speech is dulled and inarticulate with only certain sounds being more pronounced.
Capable of evoking powerful emotions using the simplest methods, Cats and the Other Lives certainly shows an enormous amount of promise. Those looking for an intense narrative to delve into, this is for you. Those looking for a light-hearted romp with a sweet kitty however, look elsewhere. With strong language and adult references throughout, it’s definitely not a family-friendly affair!
PLANNED RELEASE DATE: 2021
Wishlist it on Steam HERE.