Stream Next Fest is currently underway and if you haven't gotten around to playing a few of the hundreds of demos now available, I'm here to help you out. However, while I'm as stoked for System Shock as the next person, I think what we all could use right now is a break. And hey, what better way to take a break than to spend a weekend recharging with some cute and cozy games?
For all my fans of Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing, Studio Ghibli films, and any other piece of media with cute art and good vibes, I've compiled a list of seven demos I think you'll love. All these demos will be available until February 13, so be sure to get to playing if one (or all of them) stand out to you. In addition, wishlisting games on Steam helps developers in numerous ways, so be sure to add any and all that pique your interest. A bonus is you'll also be the first notified when they're released and, eventually, go on sale.
If you are an avid fan of management sims but have always found yourself thinking they'd be even better with some kissing, boy do I have a recommendation for you. Lakeburg Legacies is a medieval village management sim that allows players to also be their town's matchmaker. In order to build your village up and farm resources--all things found in your typical town management sim--you have to successfully wed your townsfolk to nearby settlers or other villagers and encourage them to get to baby-makin'. The wooing process requires you pay attention to what the couples' likes and dislikes are, and ensure they get through three successful dates with their potential partner. After all, it might be hard for someone who loves kittens and is anti-war to hit it off with someone who enjoys public executions. Additionally, a bigger village can lead to bigger drama, including dramatic divorces and interactions where you must carefully decide the fate of your citizens. Lakeburg Legacies is the spiritual successor to The Sims Medieval I have been waiting for, and it's incredible.
Our Life: Now and Forever
Prior to finding this game listed on my recommended feed, I had never heard of the Our Life series--turns out, it was recommended to me for good reason. In the short time I played Now and Forever, I fell in love with the visual novel's characters, charming dialogue, autumnal aura, and sweet illustrations. In short, the demo was phenomenal, and left me longing to play more and experience the tender story I was weaving. This brings me to another thing this game does superbly: It gives the player far more options than I have ever seen another game offer. While some might find the experience a bit wordy and the focus on characters/their relationships slightly overwhelming, I appreciated all the attention that went into making the game inclusive, customizable, and deeply personal. It is a truly special game, the likes of which I've never played before, and I can't wait for its full release.
Similar to Lakeburg Legacies, Fabeldom is a management sim that also injects a bit of romance into its core gameplay. While the town management aspect of it is a bit more grounded, it's also extremely fleshed out, allowing you to settle down on a procedurally generated map, buy nearby properties that contain useful resources, and play the game similarly to something more strategy-based, like Age of Empires. However, it also has a bit of humor to it, as a narrator presents the game to you through a storybook and interjects cheeky comments every now and then. Where the romance comes in is the portion of the game where you must choose if you are a "prince" or "princess" seeking a "prince," "princess," or "either." And while this didn't culminate into anything in the demo--I hit the demo's population limit before any sort of romantic interactions occurred--it would seem there's more to Fabledom than meets the eye, and I'm very excited to experience it later down the line.
Mika and the Witch's Mountain
Mika and the Witch's Mountain is a Ghibli-esque adventure game in that it has adorable, vibrant art and feels a lot like a gamified Kiki's Delivery Service. In it, you play a young witch named Mika who travels across a lush island on her broomstick, delivering packages to the townspeople below. As you make more deliveries, you will grow closer to the island's inhabitants, uncover mysteries, and grow from a scrappy novice into a full-fledged witch. Even in the demo, I was impressed by the size and liveliness of the town, as well as the character art. This game has a lot of potential and is definitely one to try out.
If you're looking for a sweet lil' platformer with some serious cottagecore vibes, look no further than Mail Time. In Mail Time, you get the chance to create your own cutesy courier who delivers letters to forest critters. While the platforming is a bit rough in the demo--though I suspect it would be better with a controller than my mouse and keyboard--it is still a lot of fun bounding off mushrooms and gliding through the air. As you deliver letters (and finish up various quests the needy critters rope you into) you earn scout badges that your mushroom-hatted mail person can proudly display. Bonus: This game is also one of the most accessible I played, with plenty of options to suit different playstyles as well as zero fall damage.
Mineko's Night Market
Mineko's Night Market has major Animal Crossing vibes, yet is extraordinarily different from the hit Nintendo game and thoroughly has its own vision and personality--a remarkable feat. The whimsical game sees your character arrive in a small, Japanese-inspired town at the base of Mount Fugu where she must learn to craft items to sell during the Night Market in order to earn money. However, this is just one small part of the game. You can also accept quests and gift items to villagers--thus improving your relationships with them--partake in various minigames, and explore the land to get down to the bottom of a mystical mystery. Oh, and if that's not enough, there are a lot of cats in this game. Like, a lot. And you can pet them all.
If Mika and the Witch's Mountain is Kiki's Delivery Service, then Spirittea is Spirited Away, and I'm sorry to once again reference a Ghibli movie, but bear with me--it's applicable! In Spirittea, you play a city-slicking writer who moves to a village in rural Japan. However, once you get there, you discover that some strange and supernatural occurrences are taking place. After fixing yourself a cup of tea, a spirit comes to you and reveals that these are happening because the village's bathhouse--which was one a lavish paradise spirits would bathe in--is in complete disarray, causing the spirits to become restless. As you are the only one in town who can see the spirits, it becomes your job to fix up and run the bathhouse, managing every aspect of it from cleaning towels to seating spirits in giant vats of water (see? Spirited Away!).
While doing this you also must acclimate yourself to the town and use your "spirit vision" to stop more menacing spirits. It's an extremely ambitious game that definitely needs more polish and character customization, but what's there is promising. With a Stardew Valley-meets-Japan aesthetic, I'm both thinking and hoping it will be a hit in the future.