So my plan was to play a bunch of demos for this series. But then Steam Next Fest ended, and a bunch of demos were removed from Steam. That’s just crazy bananas. If you’ve got a demo and it’s still representative of the quality of the full product, then taking down a demo is hurting yourself for no benefit.
(I know the claim is that demos supposedly lower sales. I have some serious concerns with the methodology behind that conclusion. Most importantly, I think it only applies to popular AAA titles in entrenched genres. I don’t need a demo for AssCreed or Tomb Raider, because I already know how those games work. This isn’t always true when dealing with a fresh genre blend from an unknown developer with an unknown property. I might actually enjoy your mashup of Cooking Mama with Batman Arkham combat and a dash of Tekken by way of Fruit Ninja. I don’t know. If you let me try a little of it, then it significantly lowers my risk. The study above claims that game demos hurt sales, but going by my personal buying habits that’s not the case. This study is basically saying, “Who are you going to believe, our statistics, or your own eyes?”)
Anyway. Like I said: I’d planned to review some demos, but they were taken down.
But! The Steam Summer Sale began just a few days after SNF ended, and basically my entire wishlist went on sale. So what I’m going to do is drop coverage of games that have pulled their demos and instead cover a few of these shiny new wishlist items I’ve picked up. And to be clear, I’m not trying to punish the games that pulled their demos. It’s just that, you know, I can’t cover them, because the demo is gone.
Let’s start with one of the demos that’s still live:
City of Beats
This one is right up my alley. I dig twin stick shooters. I’m into electronic music. I like cyberpunk-y stuff. I like high-contrast scenes with saturated neon. I like roguelites with some sort of meta-progression.
The idea is that you’re flying across this cyber-city in your hovercar. You stop at rooftops along the way to get out and fight drones / robots while electronic music plays. When you use your weapon, the projectiles come out at 1/16th note intervals and the laser sounds become part of the music. You’ve got a dash move to evade attacks, which usually land on the beat. Once you kill all the stuff, you pick up some sort of prize and then jump back in your car to continue the journey.
Your journey has you navigating between these rooftop nodes as you move left-to-right across the city. Do you want to take the high route and have a normal encounter, or perhaps navigate to the lower route and face some elites? Or perhaps you’ll have to choose between a mystery encounter and a shop. Or maybe one way will give you currency you can use if you find a shop later, while the other way will yield some meta-currency you can use between runs.
Like I said, this is my jam. It feels like someone tried to make a game perfectly suited to my tastes. This cyberpunk+neon particle+twin stick+action shooter thing is pushing all the right buttons for me.
My one problem with the demo is that I’m not sure what I’m missing? I was able to complete an entire run in about fifteen minutes. Is that just the first leg of a much longer journey, or is the whole game built around fifteen-minute runs? What is the full version going to give me that I don’t have already? Longer runs? More node variety? Same gameplay but more music?
Usually people making demos are really good at putting desired things just out of reach. “Ooh! You could have this powerup / fight this boss / proceed to the next level, if only you had the full version! By the way, here is a link to buy the full version!” The City of Beats dev forgot this step. Oopsie.
I’m buying it regardless, but I would like to know what I’m supposed to look forward to in the full version and what I’m supposedly missing now.
This makes a nice comparison with the next item on my list, which is also a bullet-hell twin-stick roguelike with neon lights and an electronic soundtrack…
Release date: “This Winter”.
I got the full version of this game. If there was a demo of it during SNF, I missed it. But it’s been on my wishlist for months and I picked it up as soon as I saw it was discounted.
This game is… a lot. I still don’t really have a handle on the huge library of meta-unlocks. There are perks to buy, characters to unlock, pets to find, weapons to collect, powerups to acquire, and new rooms to add to the bar that acts as your home base between runs.
Once you’ve found an item / weapon / pet / powerup, it gets added to the appropriate room in your base. You can even disable a few you don’t like.
Like City of Beats, this is a twin stick shooter. Unlike City of Beats, this is also a side-scrolling platformer.
I’ve said before that 2D platforming is not my thing. I’ve spent some time with the genre because I usually love the art, but I’m always wretched at it and I don’t seem to be improving with time. Moreover, I just don’t get any satisfaction from doing it. I actually find it vaguely irritating. I just want to go through that door over there and for some reason it feels weird that it should be possible to fail at “moving around the gameworld”. When I miss a jump by a couple of pixels and fall back down to ground level, I feel like the game is wasting my time on purpose. I feel like I’m playing a version of DOOM where you have to press a button once in a while to avoid dropping your gun on the ground in the middle of a fight. Why does this need to be hard? I’m not getting anything out of this.
I realize that 2d side-scrolling platformers are a perfectly valid genre and are enjoyed by millions. If anything, this is one of the most foundational genres in the entire hobby. I don’t know why I have this weird dislike of it. To make this even more inexplicable, I actually enjoy some 3D platformers like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.
So I dunno. We are all special unique human beings, and my special thing is that I am unable to enjoy this beloved genre. Whatever.
So about half of this game (neon bullets and music) is my favorite thing and the other half of the game (platforming under pressure on a busy screen full of foes and bullets) is the sort of thing that really gets on my nerves. These two extremes don’t cancel each other out, and they don’t average out into some sort of middle-of-the-road experience either. Instead I’m delighted and irritated at the same time. It’s like eating chocolate ice cream while someone flicks my ear, and the only way to stop the flicking is to give up the ice cream. This is so weird.
During gameplay you’re balancing three different types of can openers. You’ve got gems to open doors, keys to open other doors and some chests, and bombs to open weak walls and stone chests. Sometimes you’ll see a chance to trade one can opener for another, like a cracked wall with a key behind it.
This game is nice enough to include the classic three difficulty levels, which means it’s a little less obnoxious about skill level than a lot of titles in this genre. A lot of these roguelikes are by the hardcore, for the hardcore, and I really appreciate option of Easy Mode for us scrubs on the fringes of the genre.
Having said that, this game is still too much for me. Between the cannon fodder foes, my projectiles, the enemy projectiles, my pets, and my pet’s projectiles, the screen becomes a sea of particles and I can’t even find my character in the chaos, much less pull off all the precision jumping required to avoid damage.
If I had to quibble with one thing, I guess it would be the visual clutter. You’re supposed to grow in power as the run goes, but often all of my bonuses transform into liabilities as the game gets more hectic. There’s an in-game tip that tells you to stay calm during boss fights, because all damage is theoretically avoidable. That’s true for most of the game, but by the last few stages it becomes completely unreasonable to avoid attacks because the screen is just so full of particles. My bullets are bouncing around the room, and dozens of enemy bullets are hiding in all of those flashing sprites.
The biggest offenders are your pets. They add a ton of visual noise to the screen. In most runs, I’ll have anywhere from five to a dozen little animals trailing behind me, firing lasers, firing bullets, causing explosions, blocking incoming fire, and dropping coins. I’m sure they’re a help, but it’s hard to appreciate their help in the confusion. I have a hard enough time just keeping an eye on my character and avoiding damage. I don’t have the visual bandwidth to track my half-dozen pets and parse all the chaos they’re causing. “Oh, here are a bunch of coins on the ground. Did my pets do this, or did I mow down some foes with stray projectiles? I have no idea.”
So they probably help, but it’s not obvious when they help. At the same time, they add a lot of additional clutter to a screen that’s already too much for me. People with younger eyes may experience different results, but I’d love it if I could trade my pets for more powerups.After writing this, I discovered there’s an item that allows you to do exactly this. You get more powerups instead of pets. That’s nice, but you can’t CHOOSE to play that way. I just have to hope that item drops during the run. So it’s not really a solution.
(Yes, you could maybe avoid some pets by carefully hopping over the pickups. Although sometimes you open a chest and pet eggs will pop out, instantly adding them to your entourage. I don’t think the game intentionally makes pets a liability, because it doesn’t offer you any tools for avoiding them. You need to push a button to pick up a weapon, but pets are grabbed automatically. The UI is taking the rhetorical position that pets are like coins and health, and more is always better so there’s no reason to avoid grabbing them.)
This game is pretty good. I hate half of it and I still love it. I love when a run finally gets going and the music is pumping, I’ve got some jumping powerups to make the mid-fight platforming more forgiving, and I’ve got a gun that can fill the screen with bullets. It just feels so good. I’d never get very far with it under normal circumstances, so I’m grateful for the easy mode that allows me to enjoy these little fifteen-minute runs. And hard mode is always there if that’s more your style.
Release date: Out now.
 After writing this, I discovered there’s an item that allows you to do exactly this. You get more powerups instead of pets. That’s nice, but you can’t CHOOSE to play that way. I just have to hope that item drops during the run. So it’s not really a solution.
Do you like electronic music? Do you like free stuff? Are you okay with amateur music from someone who's learning? Yes? Because that's what this is.
The Plot-Driven Door
You know how videogames sometimes do that thing where it's preposterously hard to go through a simple door? This one is really bad.
This is Why We Can’t Have Short Criticism
Here's how this site grew from short essays to novel-length quasi-analytical retrospectives.
The Truth About Piracy
What are publishers doing to fight piracy and why is it all wrong?
Steam Summer Blues
This mess of dross, confusion, and terrible UI design is the storefront the big publishers couldn't beat? Amazing.