Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures, our weekly round-up of the most excellent hidden gems we dug up from the past week of new releases on Steam.
This week: botany simulation, electro-tanks, skeletal Wolverine and automatic Starship Troopers.
The Red Front
File under ‘games I feel kinda guilty about including here’ because, y’know, it’s about as smart as a Twitter execs’ boardmeeting. I can’t help but like The Red Front nonetheless. It’s a twin stick shooter of sorts, in which you play as a Russian tank, trying to survive against waves of Axis soldiers, armoured cars, tanks and what not. Some of ’em will drop weapon upgrades, and before long you have yourself a tank firing deathclouds and electric rays and all sorts. That’s it: that’s literally it. But it involves unblinking top-down carnage, has pleasantly ponderous tank movement, you can get stuck in trees and it finds a fairly sweet spot between raining hell and having to constantly manoeuvre your way out of trouble.
Very, very stupid, but the Russian marching band music helps a lot.
A lovely concept (one we posted about back in its Greenlight days) that’s both a very pleasant timesink and a slightly missed opportunity. You, in your apartment, don the mantle of a botanist – growing and cataloguing an effectively infinite array of new plants, procedurally-generated when you type in a name of your choice – ‘New Coke’, ‘Dale Cooper’, ‘Megatron’ or whatever. You can obtain upgrades – fancier pots and more space and the like – by meeting plant enthusiasts’ requests, e.g. by growing a purple flower or an orange grass – and these low-pressure, chummy challenges create a suitably gentle sense of compulsion. The highlight is always finding out what kind of plant you’re going to get from a new seed, although I think The Botanist’s biggest mistake is to have seeds grow instantly into full-size flora. Even having to wait just one in-game day would create a stronger sense of anticipation.
The weird interface, all from a first person perspective but with you fixed in place throughout, is a bit of a shame too – how much nicer it would be to physically wander over to a plant to gaze at it, rather than simply click on it and have it magically teleported across the room to you. Still, tranquil, pleasant and filled with tiny moments of joy.
Alien Hallway 2
It’s bit of a week for stupid, and ain’t nothing wrong with that. This is the sequel to a very stupid top-down shooter-cum-inverse tower defence jobbie from seven years ago (I am so old), which is essentially Starship Troopers – i.e. a few good men and women versus squillions and squillions of insectoid aliens. Your dudes auto-fire in the main, but you can direct them to focus on specific targets, such as gigantic bosses or exploding cannisters full of resources off to the side of the screen.
The key ‘strategy’ if you can call it that, is spending said resources on reinforcements, which is where the inverse tower defence element comes in – hoping your lads survive long enough for you to afford new chums for them to fight with. Yeah, it’s a hamster wheel of unlocks and loot-gathering, but the scale of the enemy swarms it chucks you is a bit of a treat, and it’s very, very difficult to stop watching ’em pop.
Pretty solid-seeming Metroidvania, with some lovely gothic 2D art and a particularly agreeable Vangelis-y soundtrack. As is always the case with an Unknown Pleasure, I’ve only played a bit of it so can’t attest for how well it holds together as levels sprawl further, powers grow and bosses get all bossy, but certainly it feels like one I’d like to stick with. The audio-visual aesthetic’s great, and it’s dark’n’demony without getting all Deviant Art about it.
Also, you basically play as Skeletal Wolverine.
This week, our weekly Minimalist Puzzle Game Of The Week in this, the week of October 6, 40th week of the 52 weeks of the year, is… well, it fits the mould with worrying precision. Skeletal piano soundtrack, monochrome art, and interactions that don’t go beyond rotating things. But it’s tranquil and pretty and has its own take on a broadly familiar theme, which is Pipemania-style parts-rotation to get a ball from one end to another. The twist here is that, as well as the pipe-pieces themselves, you can also rotate the whole construction at once, in order to make gravity do its thing and usher your ball to the exit. So it’s all about figuring out twin combinations – starts easy, grows more challenging, but pretty much stays relaxing. Most pleasant.
Pick of the week iiiiiiiissssss: well, with the very strong proviso that I’ve only seen a bit of it, I’m going to go for After Death. I just really dig its vibe, man.