LOS ANGELES—The past week’s Summer Game Fest has mostly been a virtual affair, full of trailers for video games that may or may not launch in the next 18 months. Still, as the game industry draws closer to convention-preview normalcy, we scored invites to two early-June events with playable coming-soon games.
You may have already seen my biggest hands-on highlights from those events: Street Fighter 6, which is fantastic, and Sonic Frontiers, which is weird but promising. This article sums up the “best of the rest,” based on hands-on tests at the Summer Game Fest Play Days event in Los Angeles and a series of remote-connection Tribeca Games Festival demos.
The events were missing some of the world’s biggest developers and publishers—arguably because many of their games have been pushed to 2023. Despite this list skewing more to the indie side, we stand behind these game preview highlights thanks to how they felt to play.
Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course
The bullet-hell brutality of Cuphead will return later this month as a $7.99 DLC pack. If the sample boss level I played is any indication, this DLC will hit a sweet spot for series fans instead of turning the Cuphead formula upside down.
A new playable character Ms. Chalice is available as a “charm” that one player can equip at any time, and she comes with a few novice-friendly perks, including an additional point of health, a double-jump, a parry that doubles as a forward dash, and a somersault that adds a few frames of invincibility. Her new abilities weren’t necessarily imperative in the new boss battle I played—though due to being terrible at Cuphead, I still struggled with the fight’s three phases, which included an abrupt transition to floating, rotating platforms (think Super Mario World‘s second Reznor fight).
She’s available in a new campaign that executive producer Marija Moldenhauer tells Ars is comparable to the original game’s third isle—which included seven bosses and two platforming levels. Moldenhauer says the DLC will have six bosses, which she insists are more involved and complicated than the standard game’s selection, but she wouldn’t otherwise clarify what else the DLC will contain.
Moldenhauer also says that the DLC includes nearly as many hand-drawn backgrounds and frames of animation as the entirety of the standard Cuphead campaign. This could mean that the boss battles I haven’t yet played are even more intense or that there’s another massive platforming challenge to come. Either way, $7.99 seems like a must-buy DLC option for anyone already invested in Cuphead‘s meticulously hand-drawn 2D action.
EA and Codemasters hosted an F1 2022 gameplay demo to show off the series’ newest feature: VR racing. Codemasters producers on site confirmed that the studio’s combined brain trust had matured enough to add a VR mode to F1, thanks to contributions from those who worked on VR modes in DiRT Rally and Driveclub VR. (Evolution Studios made the latter before Codemasters acquired it in 2016).
The game maker’s kiosk combined Fanatec’s CSL DD F1 bundle with a Quest 2 VR headset. In great news, the result strikes the right balance between fidelity and performance, along with considerations for VR comfort while navigating F1-worthy straightaways. The only comfort exception came from moments when the game’s particle-filled clouds filled my gameplay view, which made my headset’s frame rate tumble. This issue usually arose after a gnarly spinout when I drove all driving assists disabled; when I leaned on the game’s optional F1-for-dummies, all-assists mode, F1 2022 felt like a fantastic carnival ride.
Codemasters didn’t have much else to show off for F1 2022 at SGF, but the driving was fun enough to excite me for playing its VR mode on my PC when it launches on June 28.
At some point, the oversaturation of indie “seek-adventure” games (better known as “Metroidvanias”) has to run its course, right? What can anyone else do to top the critically acclaimed likes of Hollow Knight, Axiom Verge, and Cave Story?
While I’m not immediately convinced that Animal Well will surpass the genre’s other greats, my hour-long demo has me very, very intrigued. For one, it has new, beautiful ideas for rendering pixel art, thanks to its sole designer, programmer, and artist building the game’s engine from scratch—and condensing the complete package thus far to a 10MB limit. The game’s lighting and physics models are some of the most impressive I’ve ever seen in a 16-bit aesthetic, perhaps even surpassing the pixelated, chemical-reaction madness of Noita.
Additionally, this adventure has smart ideas for how to skip combat entirely. Animal Well asks players to focus on tricky maneuvers, puzzle-solving, and hidden-path discovery as they unravel the mysteries that cloak its lack of dialogue. Instead of wielding weapons, your eight-pixel blob of a hero must make the most of items like firecrackers—which cast lighting effects on the 2D world while scaring potential foes—and a handy grappling whip that can be tossed into crevices to grab otherwise untouchable world elements.
Snappy controls and otherworldly pixel-art designs have made my demo experience with Animal Well memorable thus far, and I look forward to its eventual release (currently pegged to a vague “early 2023” window).
You are a common housefly and have only 77 seconds to live. What kind of antics can you get up to for the rest of your short life?
Time Flies asks this question of its players repeatedly, and they answer it by flying around a hand-drawn, low-resolution house using only a joystick. The result is less like Minit, an indie adventure with a “60 seconds per life” timer, because Time Flies doesn’t include quick tasks that can be completed in each life to unlock the world’s next step. Instead, this plays like the housefly version of Untitled Goose Game. Each house in Time Flies comes with a list of hand-written tasks, and you’ll need at least a few tries to complete all the tasks in the game’s first house since some require flying in different directions.
Also, like UGG, some of Time Flies‘ tasks are more obvious than others. As an example of the game’s sense of humor, the “make some friends” tasks can only be completed by landing on a fly trap next to other trapped bugs. What’s the point of living without some friends, right? Most of the game’s riddles ask players to figure out where to fly to “complete” a listed task, and in some cases, they must land on the right trigger or find the right tiny crawlspace to reach objectives and secrets.
We’re still waiting for crucial details like the number of explorable houses and a release date, but we’re already charmed by Time Flies‘ unique approach to the “annoy all the humans” mechanics of UGG.
It’s hard to tell whether we should call Sam Barlow a video game maker or a filmmaker at this point, as his critically acclaimed “detective” games Her Story and Telling Lies revolve around a ton of filmed, real-life footage. Barlow continues to blur the line between the two formats with the upcoming Immortality, as the game essentially asks the player to become a film editor.
Like Barlow’s other recent games, a crime-solving angle emerges as players pick through video snippets. Players watch footage taken from three shoots: one in the late ’60s, one in the early ’70s, and one in the late ’90s. (These aren’t “real” films, per se, but ones that Barlow and his crew created for the sake of this game.) The footage has a star actress in common, and we learn that she died under mysterious circumstances. This found film footage might help us crack the case.
Immortality’s twist is that players start with only one piece of tape. To discover more clips from these three films, players must pause and analyze moments in each clip to find objects of interest, ranging from the obvious (an actor, a background crew member) to the tiny (a clock on the wall). Use a mouse pointer to tap an element while a film clip is frozen, and Immortality will find the same element in another film clip, which includes behind-the-scenes peeks at each film’s production process, promotional TV interviews, and audition tapes.
With only 30 minutes to flip between the game’s video and film footage, I admittedly struggled to comprehend the game’s purpose; I had to look up a trailer to realize there was even a mystery to be solved since the preview lacked tutorials or an introduction. I just started picking through clips without any tips to help clarify what I was doing. The game launches in roughly one month, so it’s unclear whether this issue will be addressed by then.
But the footage I watched was dazzling on a filmmaking front. Barlow and his crew lap up the opportunity to weave truth, fiction, romance, and despair across its cast of characters, who continue to exist after someone yells, “Cut!” What I saw struck a delicate balance between compelling cinematography and cheesy, easy-to-read characters for the sake of solving an in-game mystery. In other words, it seems on-brand for the “FMV game” genre, and I look forward to picking through Immortality‘s clips.
A Little to the Left
Platforms: PC, Mac
Planned release: Autumn 2022
I’m lumping these two games together for a preview because they each organically follow the accessible, beautifully drawn object-placement stuff of last year’s acclaimed Unpacking. They’re not clones of the concept, however.
Each puzzle in A Little to the Left presents a few hand-drawn objects on the screen, then waits for players to figure out what to do with them using nothing more than a mouse/joystick cursor. A picture frame appears, but it’s hanging crooked on a wall; use the mouse to nudge it into an even alignment. Puzzle solved. From there, puzzles become a matter of examining a few presented items and figuring out how to arrange them by obvious patterns, numerical order, or other factors—and sometimes contending with everyday interruptions like a cat’s paw batting at your progress.
Birth revolves around similar object-placement puzzles, but its puzzles weave together to tell a story, unlike ALttL‘s unexplained just-puzzles presentation. In Birth, players are trying to create a new friend by gathering and arranging a complete skeleton, and each major bone you need is found in a different building in a quaint hand-drawn town. My brief demo was spent in this town’s cafe, where four patrons could be approached, each with different objects on their tables. Move them around to create shapes and solve individual spatial puzzles, then look at various clues at each table to figure out how they fit together. Ten minutes of this resulted in me solving the combined puzzle slew to get one more piece for my hipster-mad-scientist plot.
I couldn’t pick a favorite between the two, owing to each having unique artistic approaches and clever, soothing puzzles. Based on what I’ve seen thus far, I plan on buying both.
Desta: The Memories Between
First, let’s change this video game’s name as soon as possible. I can’t say “Desta: The Memories Between” out loud without falling asleep, and that title doesn’t clarify what the heck the game is.
My suggestion is something more like “Desta: Dodgeballs and Pints.” This game is a rare example of an XCOM-like tactics game feeling distinct and unique in the genre for two reasons: quirky characters with special abilities who shout at each other like drunken rivals at a British pub, and combat that revolves entirely around the use of dodgeballs.
After moving your squad’s members around a battlefield in a turn-based fashion, you procure, throw, and retrieve a limited number of dodgeballs. Move your squadmates to proper throwing positions on offense. Find clever angles to bounce a dodgeball off a wall and still hit a foe who might otherwise squat behind cover. Enable magical powers to fetch otherwise distant dodgeballs. In a pinch, use a character’s “throw” command to pass a ball to an ally who is either more powerful or better positioned to bonk a foe.
My Desta demo at SGF was too brief, but I was still able to immediately admire the variety of magical abilities across squadmates (you can only select three per battle), the stunning art direction, and the approachable, Angry Birds-like aiming of dodgeballs using a touchscreen (though mice and gamepads will also be supported). If you need further assurance that this game could be special, it’s from the same team responsible for the fantastic Monument Valley series. Thus, Desta, even with its lousy name, has secured a place on my anticipated-games list.
The team behind 2018’s Falcon Age has returned with a Persona-like quest that might birth a new genre abbreviation: SARPG (South Asian Role Playing Game).
Studio lead Chandana “Eka” Ekanayake was emphatic during my time with this new game that he was pushing ahead with the most culturally intensive project he’s worked on. Its opening sequence reflects the real-life struggle he and his South Asian colleagues have faced in balancing family scrutiny, relationships, sexuality, and personal journeys toward autonomy.
In gameplay terms, this game’s turn-based, menu-driven battles are less about traditional combat and more about emotional responses. Jala, the game’s hero, is contending with ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends after returning home from a long absence, and while this may sound Scott Pilgrim-like, the script takes a more well-rounded approach to the setup. My gameplay demo’s major showdown saw her pushing back on an oblivious ex who’d rather put her on a pedestal and beg to date again than respect her as a three-dimensional person. As Jala, I was instructed during turn-based combat to use maneuvers that toyed with my rival’s rage and lust in order to strike—because there was no letting this guy down gently.
The dev team at Outer Loop employs over-the-top voice acting, richly saturated colors, and a skateboarding world-traversal system (which can be automated or with complicated Jet Grind Radio-styled trick systems, your choice) to sell its game as a stylish alternative to other modern RPGs. Its script thus far strikes the tricky balance between its cultural relevance and inviting outsiders to relate to issues like overbearing parents and condescending friends.
Bear and Breakfast
This hotel-management simulator combines many good ideas from Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, as it asks players to scavenge a post-apocalyptic countryside where forest animals are more common than humans. Scavenge an open-world countryside to find materials, fulfill other animals’ quests, and gather materials that will make your hotel more popular with the few humans around.
I can already see this being an addictive option for anyone who reads the above and wants a more elegant “animal sim” game to get hooked on. The menus and systems used to manage, craft, combine, and place materials in this game’s dream hotel immediately feel more substantial than the dated stuff found in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. And it’s fun to chat with the talking animals all over this game’s world, as dialogue feels like it would be right at home in quality TV series like Gravity Falls or Steven Universe.
Other hands-on highlights
Oxenfree 2: The demo I played already has more puzzles and more traversal challenges than the original. The result feels more like a true video game than the original game’s visual-novel tedium, while its voice acting and writing remain quite solid.
A Plague Tale: Requiem: This sequel’s demo focuses on a Last of Us-like system where weak players must sneak past guards and contend with waves of bubonic rats in this series’ dark-ages setting. Sometimes, that means finding the right stealthy path; other times, players must use limited crafting supplies to either create flames (which scare rats off) or douse distant fires (which can make rats attack guards). It already feels unique as a “harrowing stealth” adventure-game option.
Escape Academy: This game is a two-player co-op escape room, and the single co-op challenge I played at SGF was perfectly competent stuff in split-screen mode. My session only required one desperate use of the “help” button. It otherwise included a diverse range of puzzles that required careful examination of our first-person, 3D environments, jotting down puzzle-solving notes, and collaborating to figure out how clues on one side of a room correlated with gadgets on the other.
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