Steam’s always-incredible Next Fest event is back, following up a stacked couple of weeks of gaming showcases and announcements with an all-important opportunity for fans across the globe to actually try some exciting, upcoming releases for themselves.
With hundreds of games included in the line-up with demos planned to drop, there’s a lot to get through across the week-long event that kicked off on June 20th and ends on June 27th (AEST). Luckily, known Press Start indie enjoyers Brodie and Kieron are on hand and churning through as many demos as possible. And as is tradition, they’ve picked a handful of stand-outs each that should absolutely be on your to-play list for Next Fest.
You can see the first lot of picks right here, or keep reading below for an update with even more hot and fresh demo recommendations:
Brodie: “Do we really sound like that?” A phrase often uttered to my wife whenever I hear an Australian accent anywhere it sounds foreign. Broken Roads, a ripper role-playing game set in a Mad Max-ian outback dystopia, is ripe with ockerisms that would often make my skin crawl, and yet I find them truly endearing here. It makes the harsh world feel authentic.
The characters are there and their relationships already feel complex and historic, however our sunburnt country is clearly the centrepiece of Broken Roads and, as an Aussie, that’s really cool to see.
The game riffs on the likes of Wasteland to present a rich, laboured-breathing world full of dust, grit, and questionable ethics. Although I felt somewhat limited by the character creation side of things, perhaps due to it being a demo, I love the idea of being able to tinker with the spectrums of morality and ideology as a starting point for my avatar within a world so grey morally.
Kieron: Joined by an AI companion in overlooking gorgeous, monochrome hand-drawn scenes, Crime O’Clock tasks players with investigating crimes throughout time that were never meant to happen, causing ripples through the fabric that disrupt the one true timeline.
For each new crime, you’re presented with a huge and detailed depiction of a scene frozen in time, which you can zoom and pan around to try to discover important details, with the extra wrinkle that you can also observe the scene from different points in time. So you’ll scour for things that look suspicious in the moment, try to piece together how they came to be based on context clues, and then follow them through time to see how events change and play out. It’s kind of like doing a Where’s Wally in 4D.
At the end of a solve, you also get a report telling you how long it took you to get to the bottom of it, which is both exciting and anxiety-inducing.
Brodie: Another game that caught my eye and has definite hints at Australiana in it is Knuckle Sandwich, a J-RPG that has its fair share of quirks. I’ve seen it described as Earthbound for fast food working type operators, and it has the off-beat humour to back that up. But I’m easily pleased, my heart fluttering at the instantly recognisable Melbournian bus stop, complete with its orange-coded PTV schedule.
Raffling through the jobs that the town has available to you shows off the game’s rapid mini-games that make up half of the core loop. I mashed my way through a Dance Dance-like rhythm game, shot down disembodied facial features floating on a starfield, and fought a gang of bees only for the demo to suffer a code error on my Steam Deck which I mistook as a meta gag.
This game from Andy Brophy, which is a damn cool name, has rocketed up my list of anticipated homegrown indies and I expected it’s all but guaranteed to please the crowd hunting for the next Undertale, which itself was a super self-aware, ingenious role-playing game that broke the mould.
Kieron: This is one that I totally came across while scrolling through the Steam Next Fest demos, going in having no prior knowledge of the game (I missed the Future Games Show, apparently). I’m so glad I did though, because this is one surprisingly dense, polished and gorgeous hidden gem.
En Garde! is a swashbuckling action game starring a sword-swinging scoundrel and adventurer named Adalia de Volador, who fights tyranny with a sense of style and stinging barbs that would make Antonio Banderas blush. The first thing that struck me about this demo, other than the lush environmental visuals and energetic animations that give it a high-quality sheen I wasn’t expecting, was how fantastic the writing and voice work is – especially in its humour.
As an approachable swashbuckling sim, En Garde has you traversing stages with acrobatic jumping and climbing and cutting down your foes in a parry-riposte-attack fashion with a focus on using your surroundings to your advantage – kicking crates into folks to stun them and pushing adversaries into weapon racks, rivers and more. At one point an enemy loudly gasped and exclaimed, “She’s using the environment!” which got me pretty good.
Brodie: A dubious contract, a desperate protagonist, and the Baba Yaga. These three ingredients alone sold me on Firebird.
The game’s beautiful hand-drawn art from Quentin Vijoux reminded me a lot of Valiant Hearts, another colourful narrative game from back when UbiArts was a thing. It’s described as a “narrative road trip” and that feels more than apt. At risk of losing your truck to debt, you make a risky deal and head north, carefully juggling your resources and braving Slavic folklore along the way.
It strikes me as a game that’ll be there for a good time rather than a long one. That said, its layered narrative, along with the choices you’ll be forced to make, should position Firebird as a story you’ll play again and again.
Kieron: This is one that’s been on my radar for quite a while, so I jumped at the chance to get claws-on with it. Goodbye Volcano High takes the incredibly inventive premise of crafting a facsimile of life as we know it in the modern age, but populating it with anthropomorphic dinosaurs facing their potential, belated extinction.
The very short demo is designed to give players a small taste of how this visual novel-esque game plays out in the moment, with characters conversing in familiar genre fashion and the player being afforded chances to choose their responses, peppered throughout. One thing that stood out is just how often the game reports a player choice as having a tangible and/or lasting effect on how everything plays out, which should give the game a heap of replay value as you explore different outcomes. It’s also gorgeous, with far more animation and scene direction than I’m used to from the bog standard visual novel.
Brodie: Laika is absolutely bad ass. It’s a refreshingly unique twist on the Metroidvania formula we’re all across by this point, as it puts you in the saddle of a dirt bike in what is described as a “western-inspired motorvania”.
Getting around the world on bike-back feels a lot like Trials, although it’s the offensive and defensive capacities of the game’s mother coyote lead that separates it from Ubisoft’s motocross stuntfest. The chassis itself can be used to block enemy fire, tail whips can return bullets to sender, and you can slow time to reflexively shoot occupant forces. Risky stunts like front and back flips are tied to reloads for abilities and guns, so it adds an even greater element of danger to it all.
If I had any complaint at all, Laika is pretty squishy and any glancing blow, or bail, will send her back to the last checkpoint which, so far, hasn’t appeared to be generous. To be a fresh perspective on a pretty saturated genre is a gift in itself, but staging it all within the game’s wasteland setting makes it all the sweeter.
Kieron: This game initially caught my attention just because the title makes me feel like I’m an American attempting to say “No” in an Australian accent, but also simply because I couldn’t figure out just what it was.
Now, after having spent some time with its playable demo, I’m still not quite sure I know.
Nour is probably best described as a physics toy, but it’s also so much more than that. In the same way that the preparation and presentation of food can be a form of artistic expression, Nour invites those who interact with it to experiment with the dishes and gastronomic concepts it serves up, playing with form, colour and composition and discovering how elements interact and come together.
The demo showcases just four “dishes,” with the full game reportedly set to contain over 20 in total. I’m not quite sure how well the full game will hold my interest beyond the initial delight of messing with each new set of ingredients and tools, but it’s certainly something I’m keen to find out later in 2023.
Brodie: Every so often I happen upon a video game so mind-bogglingly creative and perplexing in terms of its execution that I just can’t help but gush. If you’ve ever experienced Superliminal, Viewfinder’s surreal, reality-bending twist on a player’s perception won’t be a novel idea, though it doesn’t make it any less impressive.
Framed as a technical experiment and housed within lush sky gardens that call to mind the peaceful world of Jon Blow’s The Witness, this demo does a remarkable job of making the game’s world-altering mechanic something you stumble upon. By finding photos in the world, holding them up in front of you and pressing the magic button, the world in front of you morphs in an instant to mirror the photo.
Everything the demo throws at players feels easy to decipher given it’s an onboarding process, but stepping into a photo for the first time is astounding. And it’s not just photos—kid’s drawings, oil paintings, and pencil sketches all get rendered as living spaces in an instant for you to hop into like you’re Dick Van Dyke hopping into a chalk mural.
I’ve covered this particularly special Melbourne-made title a fair bit here, but the limit does not exist and this new Steam demo gives us even more of the game to play than before, with even more scenes than previous playable slices of the game.
In case you’ve somehow missed this game up until now, it’s a bold musical roleplaying game set in a modern fantasy world where Greek gods exist at the same time as depressed zoomers, where player choice will shape outcomes – not just across the narrative but in the songs themselves. The folks at Summerfall Studios have put an absurd amount of work into integrating branching paths each musical number that change the very composition and lyrics as players make choices, which still blows my mind each time I play. And you really do need to play it to understand just how special it is, so…