If you love demoing games, you’re in for a fun week. Valve is holding another Steam Next Fest right now featuring playable demos of several upcoming games. Pursuing Steam during these events is always a lot of fun, as it highlights the thriving state of the indie game space and reveals hidden gems I might not have played otherwise. Like I’ve done with the other Steam Next Fest events this year, I demoed several games and put together some highlights you shouldn’t miss.
In total, I’ve picked out seven games that are worth checking out. They’re all quite different from each other, even when they share genres or mechanics like deckbuilding. From sci-fi strategy games to gritty supernatural RPGs, these are some indie demos you must check out during this October’s Steam Next Fest.
Indie fighting games can be some of the genre’s quirkiest and most disruptive games, and Ninza seems to fit that bill already. Developed by Klakmioch, Ninza features a system where players can attack enemies by pushing blocks into them. To rack up KOs, I need to smartly use my character’s abilities to slam blocks of various types in the right direction to either crush enemies or push them off the edge of the screen. While it can get a bit visually overwhelming (player indicator icons would be a nice addition), it’s shockingly simple to pick up and have a fantastic time with.
Even just playing through the single-player challenges, I got a basic sense of satisfaction every time I’d dash into a block and see it crush an opponent. I’m sure this will be even more hectic and entertaining while playing with friends, just like Super Smash Bros. is. High-level play of Ninza is bound to be exciting, as there seems to still be more depth with different block types and character buildings. While I had not heard of Ninza before this Steam Next Fest on my radar, it’s a fighting game that will be on my radar heading into 2024.
Speaking of quirky fighting games, fans of the genre will also want to check out Checkmate Showdown. As its title suggests, this game from ManaVoid Entertainment combines chess and fighting games. Things start as a standard chess match — the demo even encourages players to go to Chess.com to refine their skills — but if a King, Queen, Bishop, Knight, or Rook takes on another one of those pieces, the gameplay transforms into a traditional 1v1 fighting game.
It’s a surprisingly fun and deep game full of depth, combo potential, and even assist and tag-team features. There’s even a reason to return to the demo each day, as ManaVoid is making unique board setups each day based on iconic chess moments. Chess and fighting games are some of the most entertaining games to watch, so it makes sense that pairing them would work. That’s why Checkmate Showdown should be on fighting game fans’ radars as we approach its November 15 launch.
The idea of a competitive city-builder seems odd but Lost Native makes that surprisingly compelling with Wild Country. In this upcoming indie game, players are competing to become the new mayor of Sun City. I had to do so mainly by fighting other prospects in what feels like a competitive version of Dorfromantik, where I had to place down buildings on a hexagonal grid to maximize profitability. Wild Country is also a deckbuilder, so the buildings and abilities I had at my disposal changed every match.
Last year, Dorfromantik showed how it can be satisfying to see a city grow and synergize piece by piece. By making it competitive, Wild Country sometimes got even more engrossing as I looked at my deck of cards to see the best route to increase the money I made per turn. I tended to play aggressively, but that strategy could easily backfire with a couple of cleverly placed buildings by my opponent. Fans of card games, city-builders, and strategy games should keep an eye on Wild Country.
If you’re looking for a Vampire Survivors-like to play during Steam Next Fest, you’ll want to check out Slime 3K: Rise Against Despot. This is a spinoff of the Despot’s Game series by Konfa Games and tinyBuild, and those who’ve played Vampire Survivors will understand the basics. You move around the arena as a giant slime, auto-attacking enemies and slowly unlocking more and more weapons to help take them the more you kill. A few distinct elements help Slime 3K stand out, though.
The Slime’s bigger size made my movement more methodical, as I was more likely to run into enemies than I’d typically be in Vampire Survivors. The skills tied to cards made deckbuilding a more conscious part of the experience. I had to actively think about which card abilities I wanted to be active in my loadout and how much I should upgrade them. While I doubt that it will entirely replace Vampire Survivors, I could see Slime 3K becoming a solid alternative for me when it enters early access on November 2.
Pixel Cafe, from Baltoro Games, is about dealing with customers and generational trauma. By that, I mean it’s part cooking management game and part emotional visual novel. It follows the titular Pixel as she moves into the home her grandparents had left her after dying. This opens up emotional wounds regarding the passing of her grandparents and her mother’s parenting failures. While I only got a taste of this in the demo, it seems like Pixel Cafe is well-written and will tell an emotionally compelling story. Between those bits of story, Pixel has to work.
She does so at different bars around the city of Karstok. Those sections play out via time-based restaurant management gameplay, where I had to process the orders people gave, find the ingredients to put together, and serve it to them within a time limit. With multiple counters for customers to approach and types of drinks and food to make, it captures the hectic feeling of food service. If you dig games like Coffee Talk, and The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood like me, check out the demo for Pixel Cafe.
Frostpunk 2 and The Alters aren’t the only upcoming games from publisher 11 bit Studios. In fact, it plans to drop Fool’s Theory’s RPG, The Thaumaturge, on December 5. It got a pretty meaty Steam Next Fest demo, which introduces players to an RPG that’s a gritty European take on Persona. The titular character can commune and fight with the help of an Upyr and can investigate supernatural occurrences in early 20th-century Eastern Europe.
The demo features the game’s opening, which saw me track down Rasputin in a remote village to help my character get a handle on his abilities. With some help, I could hone those abilities and use magical powers to investigate environmental clues and fight in turn-based battles. I had to ultimately use these abilities to solve a murder and tame the monster behind it, which could then fight alongside me in battles like a Persona. This RPG’s setting is unique, and the early narrative beats are intriguing, so I recommend giving this demo a shot.
To round this out, I want to highlight Earthless from Blackbird Interactive and Team 17. This is a roguelike deckbuilding strategy game where players take command of a generation starship on a long, dangerous voyage through space. This is split into many encounters, which often include hostile aliens that instantly want to attack. Players fight back in the form of a turn-based strategy game where abilities are drawn from a deck of cards. Like Marvel’s Midnight Suns, Earthless makes players use the cards obtained to inform a more active strategy.
Excellent, atmospheric UI immersed me in the role of a ship captain adeptly thinking about the next move. I also had to consider the energy for attacks and how my engine overheated slightly with each space I moved. While arenas are small, moving early on in a fight could hinder my ability to escape danger or reach and exit unscathed in the future. It’s an easy-to-understand but deeply engaging formula and has me eager to jump back in and do even more runs when Earthless enters early access in 2024.