Imagine if in Waterworld – yes, the infamously bad post-apocalypse movie featuring Kevin Costner – everyone flew around on the giant eagles that saved Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. Now imagine those eagles also have canisters strapped to their back that collect lightning from storm clouds, which can then be fired at other eagles. You’re now part of the way to understanding The Falconeer, a gorgeous eagle dogfighting game. Or, should I say eaglefighting?
The Falconeer shares a surprising amount with Failbetter’s Sunless games, in that it takes place in a vast, dismal open world dotted with safe harbours where you can dock (or, in this case, perch) to take on mercenary work. That work is often challenging; all the missions I undertook in the demo resulted in the quest giver being rather angry with my performance. Part of it is down to the combat, which – as aerial fights often are – is a little tricky to get the hang of, but also because the instructions aren’t all that clear to begin with. But while there’s a room for extra clarity, The Falconeer has already nailed its beautiful aesthetic and haunting atmosphere; that it manages to be so somber despite its daft bird combat premise is fantastic. – MP
Shadows of Doubt
Shadows of Doubt looks like one of those Minecraft maps surgically enhanced by lighting mods, shaders and heavy-duty hardware. But it plays like- er, well I’m not sure what else plays like this, because it’s a simulated open world detective-stealth game. Haven’t come across too many of those. Made by one-man developer Cole Jefferies, it’s a game about the bits of detective work usually deemed unsexy by games – i.e. the actual detective work. Every one of the hundreds of persistent citizens in your procedurally generated dystopian noir city have names, jobs, and houses. You can explore every single apartment, and every room in those apartments. Some of those apartments have TVs playing the sound of real-life detective dramas on them, which isn’t important, but I love anyway.
You piece together cases by visiting crime scenes, interviewing suspects and, quite often, circumventing the law to find the evidence you need. My favourite touch? Your internal notes and objectives are controlled by your own internal red-string corkboard, where you can pick up and rearrange every clue you deem important. Even in its very early stages, I’m overwhelmed by the possibilities in here, and excited by how deep this little thing could get. – JS
Remember how the Max Payne games told the story via graphic novel segments before each mission? That’s also how noire thriller Liberated reveals its narrative, but it goes one step further: you play the game within those panels, too. As the pages of the dystopian story turn, the key panel of the issue becomes the frame for a black-and-white side-scroller that combines the atmospheric puzzler approach of Limbo and Inside with snappy stealth and gunplay.
When fights break out fantastic ‘BANG’, ‘POW’, ‘UUGH’, and ‘HEAD SHOT’ onomatopoeia words erupt from your weapon and enemies. Scraps are over quickly thanks to low health pools, and so it’s encouraged to sneak and blend in with the shadows to keep yourself alive.
There’s multiple perspectives, too, which provide different gameplay opportunities. As freedom fighter Barry, a member of ‘The Liberated’ who are rebelling against an autocratic state, you’re reliant on little more than your pistol and a phone to hack into computers. But when perspective switches to one of the city’s cops, you’re able to use automatics weaponry and even pilot a bomb-setting drone in one scene, setting up a bloodbath for members of The Liberated. It’s all a bit grim, but nonetheless stylish fun. – MP
It might be structured like Dead Cells, and look like Katana Zero, but this absurdly stylish 2D action roguelite actually reminds me most of Doom (and not just because of the Mick Gordon-esque metal that kicks in during every fight). At first glance, it looks like other combat platformers of its kind, but its combat is faster, meaner and, in my limited experience, cooler. A mixture of light and heavy slashes, dashes – that do not make you invulnerable, crucially – and an ammo-limited gun make up the building blocks, but the cement holding them altogether is how they chain together.
Any time you connect with a hit, your double-jump recharges, meaning you can more or less stay airborne for entire fights. It’s not only thrilling, it’s important, as things begin to tend toward the direction of ‘bullet hell’ before long, forcing you not only to fight well, but move well to make it through its twisting, generative single-screen maps. I want to do much more fighting. I need to do much more moving. – JS
The name may sound like a cynical SEO trap, but Fallen Flag Studio’s project provides a novel new perspective on edge-of-your-seat boss rush games. Eldest Souls’ combat is built around a charge attack; build up a meter until completely full and your protagonist will dash at the enemy for a strike, but also momentarily gain the Bloodthirst buff. This allows for a powerful overhead sword-swing that not only badly stings a boss, but also restores a chunk of health. Already you can likely see how a battle plays out.
While each boss is distinctly in the mold of Dark Souls (the first two in the demo are a werewolf with a giant bone shield and a colossal knight with a towering halberd), it’s Eldest Souls’ nuances that make it stand out. You’re not limited by stamina for attacks, but you can only dash three times in succession before a cool-down kicks in. It means you can go hog wild on damage, but approaches and escapes demand finesse. Victories also unlock further abilities, such as a dash that deals a flurry of blows as it finishes, which encourages some fun, sometimes risky playstyles. – MP
The Almost Gone
How can something that looks this pretty be this dark? The Almost Gone is less of a point-and-click adventure than a point-and-click drama, pitched dreamily between the micro-detail of the Room series and a European art film. The story is, I think, about a child planted in the middle of a divorce, but it’s told through the medium of picking through remains of a literally cracking family home and its surroundings. Its best idea is also its biggest problem right now – every area you visit is atomised into tiny slices of room that can be rotated and prodded at to find clues and unlock new areas.
They’re gorgeous, pastel-shaded bits of architecture and clutter but, once you’re navigating between half a dozen at once, it can begin to feel more of a chore to navigate than it should. It’s a minor gripe, however (and could be easily fixed with a mini-map) and, once you get your head around each location, puzzles unfold naturally and satisfyingly across multiple rooms. Just be prepared to feel quite sad as you complete them. – JS
Trials of Fire
The surging popularity of card-based battlers has led to plenty of innovation, and Trials of Fire has several neat mechanics in its deck. Core of these is recycling; each card costs Willpower to play, but you begin each turn with none of the resource. Instead, you must scrap cards in your hand in exchange for Willpower. It’s a system that demands plenty of forward thinking, but is helped out by the fact that each of your three warriors has their own hand of cards. If one character doesn’t need to attack this turn, you can sacrifice their cards to provide Willpower for another character.
Trials of Fire features attack and spells cards with similar traits to games like Slay the Spire, but battles are played on on a hex-based grid, allowing for characters to move across the board each turn. This further complicates battles and allows for tactics such as flanking enemies with multiple fighters, and casting spells with areas of effects.
The battles are framed by a pen-and-paper style RPG adventure told through the turning pages of a dusty old book, but those elements feel merely narrative dressing for the elegantly designed battles, the arenas for which rise out of the tome’s pages. – MP
A Monster’s Expedition
What drew me into A Monster’s Expedition was its self-billed genre – an open-world puzzle game. I kind of got it, but didn’t really have a sense of how it’d work in practice. What I quickly realised was that this wasn’t an open world in the sense of a city to explore or side-quests, but choices. At its heart, this is a sprawling, picturesque puzzler about rolling logs into place to get from miniature island to miniature island (it’s not far in approach from Stephen’s Sausage Roll). It also has a wonderful generated soundtrack to go with your moves, and some very endearing writing.
But its brilliance is that, pretty early on, you begin to see multiple routes appear, then fast-travel, and then you realise you can try things out in different order, and scratch an exploration itch. The only obstacle is your brain getting to grips with the puzzles and their growing set of internal rules (logs pushed on the side roll until they’re stopped, logs pushed from the end move square-by-square, etc.). From what I can tell right now, it’s something like a Metroidvania, except the gear-gating is based on your own neurons connecting and getting smart enough to work things out. I’m in. – JS
Lord Winklebottom Investigates
Endearingly low budget, Lord Winklebottom Investigates is a Sherlock Holmes point-and-click adventure, but Sherlock is a giraffe called Winklebottom and Watson is a hippo by the name of Dr Frumple. They’re just the first of a cast of beautifully drawn animal characters, all of whom are animated in a bizzare, stretchy way that makes the entire thing look like a hybrid between Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python skits and an Aardman show, with the static framing of a Wes Anderson movie.
It’s as gently strange and amusing as that sounds, too. It seems like half the cast is voiced by a single actor, and while it’s not clear if the game is in on that joke, it works in its favour. Each animal you meet natters away with one of several British dialects which only strengthens its appeal. Oh, and the very first puzzle involves making a cup of tea, which cements it as probably the most English game ever made. – MP