There is no shortage of hard-hitting, big-budget games coming over the next year, but for every Armored Core VI and Alan Wake II, there's also a smaller-scale game you might have missed hearing about. While these games might lack the sheer marketing power bigger studios can afford, they can be every bit as ambitious, inventive, artistic, and heartfelt. And, more often than not, these games are also the ones that aren't afraid to be experimental, and can influence future games and genres.
During my time at Summer Game Fest 2023, I got the chance to sit down with quite a few games existing outside the AAA sphere. I walked away from each and every one of them impressed and eager not only to tell the world about them, but to add them to my own Steam wishlist as well. From the first-person puzzle game Viewfinder, to the tactical turn-based volleyball game Beastieball, here's a list of the best hidden gems I played at Summer Game Fest 2023.
Viewfinder is a game that, as I can imagine Portal did all those years ago, feels too clever and ambitious to ever work. Yet, as I sat down and played through its first 10 minutes, I was blown away by just how smooth its gameplay was. The premise is simple enough: You are tasked with solving puzzles by lifting up photographs and embedding them into a level. As you stamp the photograph down, you are then able to walk through it, with this new area taking you either to a new image you can use, or granting you access to a previously blocked off area. If you make a mistake, you can rewind to the point where things went wrong, allowing players to experiment with solutions without the game feeling too stressful.
On top of the puzzles simply feeling good to solve, I was incredibly impressed with the game's art. While you begin the game traversing more realistic, black-and-white images, you are eventually tasked with walking through kinetic sketches, lush oil paintings, and other beautiful scenes. In short, Viewfinder is a unique experience that might just rekindle your love for what games can be all while giving your brain a nice workout.
If I could crown my personal winner of Summer Game Fest 2023, I'd have no choice but to hand that title over to Cocoon. While we've seen a lot of isometric adventure games lately (and I've loved the ones I played), Cocoon replaces combat with pure puzzle-solving. However, this doesn't mean creatures and large-scale bosses won't try to attack you, which makes for a rather sweaty-yet-satisfying experience.
Cocoon is the next endeavor from Inside and Limbo lead designer Jeppe Carlsen, and clearly takes the lessons he learned from those games and adds a dash of Hyper Light Drifter to the mix. The sci-fi, bug-infested world Cocoon depicts is as beautiful as it is eerie, and is punctuated by an ambient, bass-heavy soundtrack that perfectly suits the game's environments. Puzzles are primarily solved by inserting colorful orbs into various mechanisms to power them, however these orbs also contain entire worlds that, when inserted into the right device, allow you to seamlessly enter them. You must then travel back and forth between them, gaining new powers as you do so, to progress through all of them. Cocoon is a game that feels tailor-made for me as well as anyone else who loves quiet worlds you can truly get lost in.
As soon as I started Saltsea Chronicles, I found myself wishing I could have transported myself away from the busy showroom floor and straight onto my couch, with a warm blanket draped over my legs and a cup of tea resting on my coffee table. This visual novel--with an emphasis on novel, because it truly felt as if I were reading a story--follows a diverse crew of sailors on a quest to find their lost captain. Naturally, this adventure takes them across seas and to several islands, where various stories unfold depending upon who you allow to disembark.
In the demo I played, I found myself making port at Los Gatos, an island inhabited by cats and the home to one of the ship's crewmates, Stew. I chose to send Molpe (and her newborn son) with Stew, and watched as the two had unique interactions with one another, primarily centered around family and motherhood. In addition to exploration through clicking on icons and reading bits of story, the game also has a card game that sees its rules change to reflect the culture of the island you're playing on. Saltsea Chronicles is a game with a beating heart--one that seeks to tell human stories and connect with its players. I was really enamored and can't wait to play more.
Funnily enough, I actually didn't have a meeting to see Hauntii at Summer Game Fest, but after passing by the booth and getting a look at the game's art, I quickly walked up to the team handling appointments and finessed my way into a spot. You see, I am a sucker for strong art direction, and Hauntii's dark-yet-charming style immediately drew me in. While the team markets the game as a sort of twin-stick shooter, it's not at all the bullet hell you might imagine when you hear those words. Instead, the game is fairly relaxed, allowing you to take in its environments and dynamic music as you explore.
Though the game arms your tiny, ghost-like character with the ability to shoot glowing orbs to fend off enemies and take down barriers, your most important ability is your power to haunt. By possessing objects, you can move them or use them in clever ways to solve puzzles and progress through this mysterious world. Ultimately, your goal in Hauntii is to recover the memories of your past life, and figure out how you reached this place and who you are. It's a journey I am eager to take after spending a short time with such a beautiful game.
Oftentimes, stories of breakups, personal growth, and owning up to your past mistakes can be emotionally draining. And while I genuinely do love a good game that gets me a bit teary-eyed and gives me the space to do some soul-searching, the way Thirsty Suitors approaches these topics is a breath of fresh air.
Thirsty Suitors follows Jala, a twenty-something-year-old young woman, who returns home after a particularly nasty break up. While appeasing her parents and older sister is already stressful enough, Jala's homecoming is made all the more difficult when her exes band together in an apparent attempt to make her life as difficult as she made theirs, creating a scenario that feels very Scott Pilgrim-inspired. Jala is then forced to cook, skate, and partake in wacky turn-based battles as she makes amends with those she's wronged and discovers more about herself. It's an impressive blend of mechanics that never feels overwhelming, despite how robust it is, and allows for players to explore culture, romance, and family dynamics in a completely original way. It's also worth mentioning how impressive and vibrant the game's art, voice acting, and overall identity is. It's a game that feels deeply human, and is a joy to experience.
Été, a French-Canadian game that follows a young artist who moves to Montreal for a summer, is among the most charming games I played at Summer Game Fest 2023. In Été, you travel to 10 different locations inspired by the city of Montreal, from lively alleyways to quiet parks. As you visit these areas, originally depicted only in black and white, you add color to the scenes with your paintbrush. Every object you paint is then stored away in your mind as "inspiration," which you can then use to create original works of art using the easel in your apartment.
The allure of Été is how relaxed and low-stress its gameplay is. While you can upgrade your skills, your collection of inspiration, and complete commissions for your neighbors--adding a bit of structure and objectives to an otherwise freeform experience--there are no consequences for taking your time. To me, the experience felt a bit like Powerwash Simulator-meets-The Unfinished Swan, making for a soothing experience that has the power to emotionally resonate with its players.
Have you ever wondered what a Pokémon game would look like if instead of having your cute lil' creatures bash the living daylights out of each other, you led them through an intense game of volleyball instead? This is the basic premise of Beastieball, and it's as delightful as it sounds. You begin the game by creating your character (using a very inclusive creator I had a blast playing around in) and selecting between three starter beasties, each one specializing in a different skill. I ended up selecting Kichik, a bird-like creature that specializes in serving up powerful shots, though each critter certainly had its merits.
You then walk around wild areas, battling random beasties and challenging other coaches in order to build up your skills and stats. The game is incredibly simple to understand and I almost wished there would have been a bit more challenge to it, but I can see how things may ramp up in time. There are also added elements that will shake up how matches play out, with the most fascinating being its beastie relationships mechanic. As your beasties get to know each other, they can become rivals, partners, besties, or sweethearts, with each relationship offering unique advantages. Each area culminates with you facing off against a ranked coach as you make your way toward competing in the Crown series.
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