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 kicks off in earnest on June 20th and ends on June 27th (AEST). Luckily, there’s already quite a few to check out ahead of time, and that’s exactly what known Press Start indie enjoyers Brodie and Kieron have been doing. 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.
Take a look at the picks below, and keep coming back as more demos become available:
Brodie: Based on the huge demo available, The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood feels like an amalgamation for a lot of Deconstructeam’s past work. It takes the creative assembly style of gameplay of The Red Strings Club and melds it with the personal, poetic storytelling from their collection of reflection, Essays on Empathy.
The hook here is you’re a fortune-telling witch floating through the void of space having only served a fraction of a coven-imposed, millenia-long exile. Without your powers or deck, you summon a behemoth—an all-powerful cosmic entity that skirts the edges of reality itself—to get you out of your jam.
The Red Strings Club had you mixing cocktails, this one has you create from scratch a whole new deck of cards, imbued with universal elements and tied to human conditions. I’ve only scratched the surface of experimenting, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in blending together all of the pre-built backgrounds and assets.
Kieron: I’ll famously not ever shut up about Mutazione, the superb narrative indie from Copenhagen studio Die Gute Fabrik, so the announcement of their new joint had me understandably stoked.
Having now tried it out for myself thanks to the Steam demo, I can unequivocally say that it’s one of my utmost anticipated games for 2023. Saltsea Chronicles takes a slightly different tack to its predecessor with streamlined interactions supporting a more complex story progression.
Even in just this small slice of the game, which takes the crew of the ship, De Kelpie, to an offshore community with a heavy cat population, there are multiple conversational outcomes and little nuances to discover depending on which crew members you choose to make land. There’s a rich, interactive compendium of information that you discover and evolving relationships and tensions between your crew, plus an entire card-based minigame to play, which gives the impression that this game is a vastly more ambitious undertaking than Mutazione.
Brodie: Food is a core component for comfort and nostalgia, through the coming together over a meal it represents togetherness. And all of these things make up the core of Venba, a South-Indian tale of connection told through mouth-watering food.
The demo is very short, perhaps giving a window into just how long the game could end up being, but it’s well-written and was profoundly relatable for me as one half of a young married couple, even with the obvious cultural divide.
Even from this small appetiser, the cooking itself is central to the fears and frustrations of a young Indian couple who consider trading opportunities for a return home. I expect crushing ebbs and flows in what’ll undoubtedly be a heartrending story of family and the thankless work that goes into keeping it all afloat.
Kieron: This is actually one that I’ve written about before thanks to a little hands-on with the game at the very studio that’s crafting it, Melbourne’s own Paper House, but I jumped at the chance to try my big blue hand at it again.
Wood & Weather is a very unique take on the “god game” that sees you play as an ethereal, disembodied hand that’s able to float down from the heavens to interact physically with the world – picking things up, giving objects to folks or (rudely) taking them, pulling levers, walking at ground level on your index and middle fingers, and of course changing the weather at a whim. By these powers combined you’ll summon Captain Planet puzzle out little tasks within an adorable wooden-block society through experimentation, earning Inspiration to unlock new weather types while filling out a compendium of things you’ve seen and done.
The writing is also unmistakably Australian, with the wooden doll citizens saying things like “you’re actually going to laugh but this fully isn’t my van” after I’d just used my otherworldly might to drag said van across two blocks like I was Jim’s Divine Intervention. Brilliant.
Brodie: Perhaps the simplest of the demos I’ve played, so far, Cipher Zero is a pretty basic puzzle title in futuristic dressage.
Having dabbled with a couple of his titles, it actually feels like the central mechanic for what might be a Mike Bithell game. Without any external factors like a narrative, it’s instead bound to its alien and mechanical setting which at least gives an air of mystery to it all.
I particularly enjoyed the lack of onboarding. Without stating it outright, it gave the impression that I’m a stranger, arriving to unravel these glyphs centuries after. However, the tasks remain intuitive and satisfying to decode. There’s certainly the promise of great escalation from “level” to “level” so I hope it continues throughout the entire game.
Kieron: This game caught my attention immediately when it was shown off at the recent Xbox Games Showcase, so having a public demo of DON’T NOD’s unique and gorgeous blend of climbing, puzzles and adventure available so soon is a treat.
Jusant’s bold premise sees players scale an unfathomably tall, rocky tower, using a variety of tools and your wits to push higher and higher among different biomes, structures and caverns along the way. The section in the demo is fairly straightforward, giving you a tutorialised climb to a kind of waypoint building, punctuated by the odd hidden path or secret to find, but I can’t wait to see if and how the game gives players more freeform climbing objectives as the game goes on
A game designed entirely around climbing might conjure memories of the absolute least interesting part of most third person blockbuster action adventures, but Jusant couldn’t be any more its own incredibly unique and engaging take on the concept and it’s not until you try it for yourself that it becomes so very clear.
Brodie: The Invincible is a moody and beautiful explorative sci-fi adventure set within the far reaches of space as you’re marooned, along with your research team, on an uncharted planet. It might seem serene, however you’ll uncover dangers both scientific and philosophical that’ll make you question everything.
As the player, we go along with Yansa, a steely astrobiologist with a healthy curiosity about the cosmos, on her journey to find her team while filling out the blanks in her Swiss cheese-like memory of how they came to be stranded.
The developer’s inspirations, so far as gameplay goes, include both Alien: Isolation and Firewatch, which already serves as an exciting basis for a thrilling, tense adventure. On top of all of that, the retro futuristic, atompunk art design embeds the game firmly in time, amid an alternate spin on one of mankind’s most costly dick-measuring contests: the space race.
Kieron: I’ve long been a fan of the SteamWorld games, not least for the way that Thunderful keeps finding new ways and genres to present the same essential concept – the American West mining boom but make it robots.
This time around, it’s a town building strategy game that tasks players to build their robotic mining community in classic genre fashion, expanding and upgrading their settlements to attract more robo-residents and opportunities. The twist though, is your town is built above a rich, abandoned mine just ripe with resources, so you’ll also spend plenty of time below the surface, managing your mines and the workers within them.
SteamWorld Build’s demo does a great job at painting an accessible and immediately gratifying town management experience, but it’s the feedback loop of bettering your community to improve your mining, to pump more resources back into the community, that’s well and truly got me hooked.
Brodie: If there’s a publisher who has built a reputation on delivering schlocky, interactive live-action narratives, it’s definitely Wales Interactive. There’s an irresistible pull that I find in these choose your own adventure games that isn’t at all satisfying, in fact they’re effectively the fast food of video games.
As is always the case, the acting is infomercial-grade and the cuts—which occur with every trivial choice you’ll make en route to one of your dozen endings—are far from seamless. That said, the mystery at the heart of it, which is built up around this eclectic cult who spend a few nights every few years in a strange hotel, seems hard to resist.
Unlike others, which I’ve found can be very to the point, The Isle Tide Hotel feels like it has a deeper lore to unearth as you race to rescue one of the cult’s abductees. I also adore how these games can feel so landlocked in a time so long ago, and, like fast food, which tends to fill you with calories and self-loathing in equal measure, The Isle Tide Hotel is perhaps only recommendable if you’re laid up and can’t be arsed with a hearty meal.
Kieron: The folks at League of Geeks are a creative and talented bunch with the excellent Armello under their belt as well as both Solium Infernum and Jumplight Odyssey on the way. It’s the latter that’s dropped a wonderful Steam demo, and one I urge fans of strategy, social simulation, sci-fi and probably numerous other words beginning with ‘s’ to try.
At its core, Jumplight Odyssey is a game about being the captain of the enormous interstellar ship, the SDF Catalina, and a captain’s work is clearly never done. The sheer depth of the game’s simulation of starship captaincy is seriously impressive. Everything from your ship’s resource management, construction, manufacturing, defenses, crew roles, away missions, relationships and morale and a heap more all factor into the success of your runs within its roguelike structure, as you fend off attacks and work your way across the galaxy and toward the Forever Star.
Also, it opens with a brilliant 70s anime-esque animated sequence that really sets the tone for the game’s entire vibe.