Ah, summer. The birds are singing - bees are buzzing… and you’ve forgotten to buy anything from the Steam Summer Sale?! Head-spinning amounts of discounts and endless titles seem daunting, but grab a paper bag and breathe because we’ve got you covered with Dustin R’s breakdown of his top picks for retro lovers, and a shameless plug of Log Jammer’s in honor of its upcoming update!
After playing Darkwood, you learn a lot about yourself. It used to be that I could easily say: “I love horror games, but nothing scares me in the genre,” and it would be true. Now? I have to amend that statement to say, “except for Darkwood. Darkwood scares the absolute **** out of me.”
Do not let the graphics fool you -this game possesses a ton of scares that AAA games and others with high-budget graphics wish they could create. It also does this with little to no jump scares. The scares are more organic and are a bit more visceral because of it. To get a better understanding, we must talk about the gameplay first.
Darkwood is a top-down survival game where your character must navigate the darkened woods to escape. The gameplay changes depending on what time of day it is. If it is daytime, you are out in the woods, exploring, collecting lore, scavenging for precious resources, and trying to eke out enough for freedom to be just a tiny bit closer. If it is nighttime, however…
…Well, that’s when things get spicy. While creatures are out and about during the daytime, it is at night when they are most active, and most hostile. Your character cannot survive in the woods at nighttime without shelter. There is an ever-encroaching presence of evil that resides in the dark. It will just as quickly overtake you the moment you feel brave enough to try to brave it out in the dark. So, find yourself a shelter, fire up a generator, barricade your doors and windows, and hunker in a corner and wait.
Wait for what you ask? Well, daytime of course! Oh yes, you heard me right. You will be cowering in a corner with (hopefully for your sake) some sort of weapon or means of defense in the off chance the creatures outside decide to pay you a visit. Which they will. They always will. How many? Who can say? If you are lucky, you will hear them. If you are unlucky…well…, did you check your blind spot recently? Might want to do that.
This is how Darkwood stands out above the rest and is so effective at scaring you. This concept of blind spots. In other games, you have a bit more agency in how you take in the visual information and auditory information. Here though, with the perspective being so far out, and you only having things visible immediately in the proximity of your character’s body? That means the entire world where you are not looking that is obscured by darkness has actual monsters that are active all around you.
In short, unless you are actively looking in a particular direction and casting your vision cone in a certain area, you can not see everything else. Combine that with no waypoints, rogue-like elements, and only a hand-drawn map of landmarks with no cursor indicating where you are creates a very anxiety-inducing situation that you never feel comfortable in. Couple that with the rogue-like elements of how the area will be different on subsequent playthroughs, and locations of materials being also randomly generated causes the perfect storm of unease that is unique to Darkwood.
If you are feeling brave, you can pick Darkwood up on sale for $5.09 on steam.
Risk of Rain:
Risk of Rain is a game I constantly come back to time and time again. It’s a personal favorite of mine and shows just how strong gameplay can carry a game. Visually, Risk of Rain is a very simplistic-looking game that carries with it a depth that far exceeds its appearance. This game belongs very firmly to the rogue-like genre of games. You have your randomly generated seeds for runs that affect everything from enemy spawns, map locations, and item drops. You can have a good run or a bad run, but overall, the farther you get, the more likely your next run will be a success because of your skills being honed over time and the unlocking of items and/or characters from your previous attempts.
This is different than a game like Rogue Legacy, where each run has a more direct, tangible improvement over the last thanks to leveling up certain traits of your character. Your skill plays more of an important part in your successes in Risk of Rain if you intend on beating the final boss to successfully clear a run. This inherently makes the game “harder” than games with consistent progression, but it also makes the game very rewarding and “earned” when you successfully beat a run.
Combined with that difficulty I just mentioned is the concept of difficulty scaling in Risk of Rain. In this game, there is a mechanic where the longer you survive, the harder the game gets. Put another way, the game is absolutely trying to kill you and wants you dead, badly. So, there is this constant pressure to progress and not loiter too long in a zone lest you summon the ire of the planet’s inhabitants. This also adds a very interesting sense of balance as well, because decisions must be made on whether you have time to explore the entire map for more powerups or risk going into another zone to avoid the harder waves but going into another level underpowered.
With the wealth of characters you can use, each having their unique playstyles and trying to obtain all the items can easily absorb endless hours of your time if you allow it to. It is up there as one of the best rogue-likes ever made in my humble opinion. If this sounds up your alley, it’s on sale right now for $2.49 on steam.
Return of the Obra Dinn:
Return of the Obra Dinn is less a game and more of a one-of-a-kind experience. If you were ever the type to watch murder mysteries and are constantly trying to figure out who the killer is, that same level of energy is present in this game. What is more, this is a single-player game that encourages co-operative play in the form of a friend or family member helping you out with trying to solve the mystery.
I must talk around this one a little bit because the very nature of the game and the mystery it contains is paramount to the enjoyment and the actual gameplay. No spoilers from me. Here is what I can say. You work for an insurance agency. You are tasked to go see what became what was a lost ship at sea that has turned up, but none of the crew members are present. Truly bizarre, as the ship’s manifest listed 51 people on board the ship. Your job is to figure out the fates of each of the 51 passengers and crew members. At your disposal is a special watch that allows you to manipulate time, a map of the route the boat was headed on, a picture of the crew, among a couple of other documents. That is all I can say.
As far as other gameplay is concerned, aside from investigating the ship and using your deductive reasoning and investigative tools, there is no combat to speak of or other things to get in the way. In its purest form, it is a logic puzzle that contains other puzzles within that puzzle.
If you think you could give Sherlock Holmes a run for his money and you’re looking to give your brain a workout, go on Steam and pick it up. It is currently sitting at a respectable price of $14.99.
Children of Morta:
Children of Morta belongs to the roguelike genre as well. Naturally, with each game that joins this genre, it becomes increasingly difficult to stand out as innovation on the concepts and fundamentals of roguelike gameplay become standardized over time. However, Children of Morta has no problem standing out as a roguelike to take notice of. With this game, the narrative is far more emphasized, and the idea of family and unity that comes from that is constantly reinforced in not just the story, but the gameplay.
The innovation that Children of Morta brings to the table is the idea of shared abilities among each of the seven family members. As you progress through the game, your character is not just leveling themselves, but leveling their family members as well. This is done by every couple of levels that are invested in skills for your family member, unlocks a passive ability that is shared among all the characters. Simply put, just how in Rogue Legacy you are making permanent progress despite losing a run, that too is the case here
With this game emphasizing narrative more so than a lot of other roguelikes, it must nail this aspect, and I am happy to report that holds true. The story follows the Bergsons who notice that their peaceful forest is being overtaken by a darkness that is corrupting everything that it touches. In instances of such evil, the family is tasked to repel the darkness, and to do this requires the assistance of three guardian spirits. Each three-guardian spirit however has been ensnared by the darkness, so the family must band together and enter each of their domains to free them from the clutches of evil.
I know what you might be thinking. That sounds standard, and admittedly it is a very familiar storyline. However, the characterization of each character and the interactions with them is what gives this story a bit more of a personal flair. Each time you come back from a dungeon bits of the story are given to you by a narrator who reads to you as if it were a storybook. As this goes on, you can see the characters grow as individuals, and you become more invested in them as the story progresses. Additionally, when you are not in the middle of a dungeon, you can watch their day-to-day life and it is just this extra layer of personality that helps make the story shine.
All of this to say that while the narrative is a strong identifiable selling point, the gameplay is no afterthought. Children of Morta provides a very strong roguelike experience with plenty of variety in pickups that are both active and passive, and the inclusion of runes that alter character skills in various ways. Each run will be different. Layouts will be different. So on and so forth. Combat is also noticeably different than other rogue-likes, where it feels very much like a hack and slash game when you are battling the floods of enemies.
Children of Morta has no problems developing its own identity and easily stands as something worth checking out if you want a nice solid roguelike experience with an emphasis on story and persistent character progression. You can grab it on steam right now half off for $10.99.
Blasphemous is a game that stuck with me long after completing it. It just does everything right. From graphics, game design, gameplay, sound direction… nothing about Blasphemous is lacking. It is also the only game on this list that is a Metroidvania, so if you are looking for a new Metroidvania, you really need to give this a shot. Allow me to explain.
This game might be one of the most consistent games I have ever played. From the gorgeous pixel art and macabre motifs to the solid controls, to just how combat feels. Nothing feels out of place. That cannot be understated as to how important that is in a Metroidvania. You want every button press to matter and make sense, as platforming and being able to properly defend yourself are foundational in making a solid game in this genre. Blasphemous is more on the heavier side of games in the genre, with a more grounded approach compared to games where it is much more about faster mobility and being aerial. Blasphemous feels meatier in this regard, with very brutal hits having the right oomph to them, and mobility being more focused on spacing out the enemies and reacting, as necessary. It is much more methodical and honestly feels more on the earlier Castlevania side of things. Exploration, map familiarity, and enemy knowledge all remain important facets of the game, but with much more emphasis on the combat side of things even more so than the others. It helps Blasphemous put some distance between itself and it is peers in that fashion.
This game also foregoes a robust weapon list and inventory to focus more on one weapon but with skills to bolster it and spells to compliment it. It just goes in line with what I was saying earlier about how Blasphemous is just rock solid with its consistency. It really keeps you where it wants you and does not let go. It’s honestly incredibly impressive.
I will not go into visuals so much, seriously all you need to do is look at it. This game is a contender to me as being one of the best-looking pixel art games ever created. Period. Sound design is expertly crafted to match the aesthetic it is going for without taking away or distracting. Absolutely phenomenal. Blasphemous is available right now on steam for $8.49.
Log Jammers provides a very compelling blend of fighting game methodology alongside very accessible gameplay to create an immensely addictive retro arcade experience. The concept is simple: While running on your log, you must prevent your opponent from slinging an ax past you into your goal. The first to score 11 or more points wins a round. First to two rounds wins. However, as simple as the concept is, the execution is where the game truly shines. Each of the eight characters has their specific strengths and weaknesses, alongside a unique character ability, but outside of those specifics, the core gameplay is identical among everyone.
Touching on my previous statement of fighting game methodology, oddly enough Log Jammers feels very much like a fighting game without being one. Concepts such as spacing, mind-games, and counters are the bread and butter of this game. The close quarters of the arenas alongside just how fast and frantic the gameplay is also furthering this into the fighting game side of things. It is unique in this regard as having the appeal of both a fighting game and a sports game.
The game has no frills to it, opting for a more streamlined approach. You can play online against others, or with a friend locally. For solo players, you can play against a computer, or the tournament mode which is pretty much the game’s story mode where you compete against the other characters. Alongside these offerings, you can also choose to play the original mode, which is first to two rounds wins the match, or the cheerleader mode.
Cheerleader mode in my opinion is the better of the two modes. In this mode, you no longer must win two rounds to claim the match. Now, it is just one round, but with one catch: your goal is guarded by four cheerleaders on rafts. To score, you must take out the opponents’ cheerleaders so you can have an opening to score. It adds an extra layer to the gameplay that makes it even more exciting and intense in each match. Do you take out one cheerleader and just focus your shots on that one opening? Do you take them all out, leaving the entire goal open for scoring, while sacrificing over four attempts at scoring points?
Log Jammers’ addictive gameplay loop is helped by how quick the matches can be. You can very much have matched that last as long as 40 seconds, to as high as five minutes. Then after the match, all you are going to want to do is get back into the next match and do it all over again. I cannot even begin to quantify just how addictive this game is.
Log Jammers is currently on sale for half off on steam for $2.49. If you enjoyed games such as Lethal League, Nidhogg, and other fast gameplay, fast match structured games, this game more than deserves to be part of your library.