So another year has come and another tidal wave of money floods Valve's coffers. With another Steam sale under way, we can expect to see folks searching for those favourite games they've been itching to nab for a cheap price, but sadly this all too often comes at the cost of the lesser known titles. Scratch the surface, look past Skyrim, Deus Ex or the like for a minute and you'd see a wealth of games heavily discounted month after month, each well worth a few dozen hours per playthrough. Here's just a few personal favourites which really should be allowed to stand out from the crowd.
Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas
Current discount: 60%
This is about as Zelda as you can get without throwing in an annoying fairy or playing as a green garbed hero. Clearly tapping into the spirit of Wind Waker, the game sees players traversing the cel-shaded seas in order to solve puzzles, riddles and an overarching mystery surrounding the protagonist's father. It's one of those few titles which can truly tap into a classic look, aesthetic and style of approaching tasks but still retain that sense of wonder many older titles were famed for. Really, the second you think that you've found the limits of what you can do, some new item or twist will abruptly emerge making you want to backtrack to see just what's changed.
While it admittedly relies upon a "smoke and mirrors" approach to presenting a vast world, unless you really stretch to push its boundaries you never feel constrained. The levels are carefully cultivated both in structure and visual presentation that it never really seems to hurt the game, and you never truly notice it unless you absolutely go out of your way to test its limitations. This actually helped it stand out on a number of platforms, as combined with the smooth controls and interface, it proved to retain its fun and engaging nature even on iOS.
Besides the beautiful world and atmosphere, the mechanics themselves are solidly put together and remarkably well structured. While they're hardly the most original concept ever to be written to code - find an arsenal of items, build it and access more of the game - and they're Zelda through and through, there's no denying the developers nailed the ideas here. What's notable is that the game manages a far better balance between combat and puzzle solving than the average Zelda clone, with a wide variety of weapons and simple spells to overcome each foe.
The core story will last the average player a good fifteen to seventeen hours. However, you can easily add on another five once you account for the side quests and bonus content hidden across multiple islands. There's really not much more to be said in all honesty, it's a good, fun and cheap alternative to a classic which does its AAA inspiration justice.
The Perils of Man
Current discount: 55%
Throwing together steampunk visual aspects, time warping puzzles, classic point & click mechanics and an astoundingly well crafted story; it's amazing to think that The Perils of Man has been so criminally overlooked. This is one of those few titles which proved that the right developer can accomplish more than anyone could imagine even on the most stringent of budgets, and how memorable a character can be in just a few scant hours. While the driving force is akin to that of Oceanhorn - mysteriously missing parent - it approaches the subject in an entirely different manner. In this case you follow the story of Ana Eberling, searching for her missing scientist father through the inventions and technology he left behind.
Focusing more upon strong character moments than ab event driven narrative, the writing provides some remarkably engaging and heartfelt moments in its own quirky way. Having been created by two ex-LucasArts developers, it goes for a semi-minimalist approach, of hinging upon character cutscenes and commentary about damn near everything. When done badly this can easily kill a game, but here it's very Guybursh-esque, offering just about enough humorous thoughts from Ana before it becomes truly grating. Equally, many of the supporting NPCs retain that odd minimalist combination of being unpredictable but presenting a strong character. A factor which allows them to remain engaging while still keeping you guessing as to what their rule in the story.
The puzzles themselves are going to be something of a mixed bag for many people, as some certainly nail it while others are frustrating to the point of tedium. Despite the expertise behind the game, you're going to run into that moment where you're stuck at a dead end, hunting for that one pixel you need to click to keep progressing. That said, this is a factor many expect from the series, and save for that one moment the rest of the puzzles prove to be intelligent, engaging and extremely creative. This is helped in no small part by the magical “risk assessment goggles” which you'll use throughout the game. By putting these on you can predict certain outcomes to puzzles or possible futures, adding a new dimension to the mechanics themselves.
Plus, the visuals are about as Tim Burton-esque as you can get without Vincent Price narrating over them; so take that for what it's worth.
Current discount: 75%
Remarkably, despite the long history of comicbook screw-ups when it comes to video game adaptations, 2000AD has had a solid track record. While many of its biggest hits are set firmly in Judge Dredd's universe, Rogue Trooper managed to outdo damn near all of them. Following the story of the comics, the game follows Rogue, a Genetic Infantrymen built to fight in the polluted hell of Nu Earth and defeat the power hungry Nort government. While they were intended to serve as a war-ending superweapon, betrayal from within saw the army wiped out in its opening engagement, save for Rogue himself. now it's up to him to take revenge upon the Norts and turncoats alike.
The mechanics and core gameplay are an odd mix of Fall of Cybertron and Gears of War elements. Cover based combat is encouraged as you can't last long in the open, and quite a few weapon types will feel very familiar to those of recent generations. Really, the rocket launcher might as well just be called the Hammer of Dawn Mk. 0. This makes it an odd but effective blend of modern and classic mechanics when combined with the likes of the Duke Nukem style Holo Decoy.
While some of the elements taken for granted today are undeniably rough around the edges, it never devolves into full on chunkiness thanks its core design elements. The enemy AI holds up well even today when it comes to squad based tactics, and the alarmingly effective snipers will leave you always on edge. What's more, the level design and variety is well paced but remarkably open to the elements, allowing the world to seem big even while it keeps you firmly on track.
However, this isn't simply a "best of" compilation pinched from the creations of other developers, and its own ideas hold up remarkably well. The big one - famous from the comics - is your sentient equipment. Rogue's helmet, rifle and backpack all retain the memory chips taken from his fallen comrades, allowing them some autonomy and a fair degree of snarky commentary. The helmet can hack and bypass a multitude of security locks, while your backpack can turn scrap into new supplies and equipment. Even dropping your rifle and switching to your side-arm has its advantages, as it can be set-up as a remote turret.
Finally, despite largely consisting of future Nazis, there's a surprising amount of enemy variety to be found on the polluted battlefields. Mini-mecha, tanks, aircraft and super soldiers all show up, and even the basics have a few fun bonuses to mix things up. After all, it's hard to get bored of assault rifle wielding fodder when the gas mask equipped goons all have a very explosive oxygen tank strapped to their backs.
Current discount: 40%
This is the first of three RPG Maker creations to make this list, and it is quite frankly amazing more people have not played this one. Not only does it take an extremely ambitious stab at a fascinatingly grim concept, but it offers a level of replay value found in few other games.
The story this time follows that of Henry Shackelton, inventor in a steampunk world who is assaulted and murdered mere hours before he could fully perfect his magnum opus. Thanks to his technology he has been offered a second chance at life, but only has a single hour left to live. As time ticks away, the question remains if he can uncover the secret behind his own murder, or accomplish some other feat as his final mark upon the world.
Of all those here, Crudelis is easily the most story driven of the bunch, yet offers a remarkable level of freedom despite that. The story branches off into a multitude of different paths, with events and moments in time taking place simultaneously. Following just one will immediately lock off all others, and you will need to start over to fully experience them. What's more, even following a story to its end might still result in a surprisingly different outcome if you rush through it or overlook something. With twelve different endings, there's any number of points were you could shift or alter the outcome of your remaining time on this earth. You really can do anything from hunting down the bandits to unleash bloody murder, finish your day performing an act of unparalleled charity, or just drown your sorrows in the nearest pub.
The presentation here is amazing, especially when it comes to the core soundtrack. While it might be grim and it might retain the steampunk look, this stands out from any other example on this list thanks to its grim and bitter atmosphere as you traverse the dystopian city. While the graphics themselves are nothing to write home about, what you learn of the world and the grim, dreary trappings make it all the more engaging given your limited time there. Between the copious lore and some remarkable choices present in the game (bar, whorehouse, library, the sort of things most games would skip any meaningful interaction with) the city seems far more alive than the vast majority of SquareEnix releases.
If there is a criticism to be made here, it's that the game can seem misleading. There's little in the way of real RPG elements here, and in terms of mechanics Crudelis is extremely light. There's no turn based combat, no truly skill or planning based engagements, just you and your choices. As such, it has more in common with visual novels than anything else, and some players might find this to be a little insubstantial as a result. What's more, the story offers little in the way of true set-up or introduction which can be off-putting at first, and a few of its efforts to be "mature" can come across as laughable. That said, you'd be hard pressed to find a game which doesn't offer you better value for your money.
Current discount: 40%
This is one of those games you've probably seen discounted time and time again in each sale, and constantly overlooked each time. If you did this, it's probably one of the biggest mistakes you've ever made on Steam. You see, this isn't simply an RPG Maker creation, this is the definitive RPG Maker game. This is the one all others should be measured against, in terms of scope, story, presentation and sheer grandeur; near perfectly capturing the classic Final Fantasy experience as a result.
We reviewed this last year, but if you want the quick version it: The game is fully customization from the start, allowing you to pick and choose your entire party from a variety of traditional classes before delving into the adventure. This means you can choose four white mages, four knights, or any combination you want. What's more, the story itself is both complex and unobtrusive at once. Built in order to cater to both story fanatics and speed runners alike, you can tick off the option to skip all cutscenes or story details at once. So for the latter it can be an easy task of an evil empire trying to conquer all, while for the former it becomes a story of a tragic villain and the horrible mistakes stemming from ten thousand years prior. Choice is a key factor in the game and multiple occasions allow you to seriously alter how the world views your character. For example, the late game offers a chance to battle a legendary beast known only as the kraken. While you can beat this by instantly petrifying it, taking the harder route earns you praise and renown from just about any NPC. A welcome change from how NPCs in the likes of Skyrim will overlook you slaying hundreds of dragons at a time.
The map is truly massive, capping off at roughly size as Final Fantasy VI in terms of its sheer scale. It can take minutes at a time to travel from one continent to the next and you need to fully explore each segment of the continent for yourself, picking out and discovering each land in turn. It's entirely possible to stumble upon a more advanced area of the game long before the story even asks you to visit it, and in some cases it's even encouraged because of what it can offer. Accidentally walking into a city occupied by your foes means you can end up tied up in a resistance effort to rescue its imprisoned leader, a moment some can miss entirely. Even without this though, Last Dream is brimming with countless major and minor locations or quests left to those willing to explore. Among these are several vehicles, two major cities and even several surprisingly rewarding secondary quests. Don't believe me? Sail into the wrong part of the sea and you can end up consumed by a leviathan and forced to kill it from within.
At any point players can opt to stop and alter the game's most basic settings, from the general difficulty to monster encounters. Even the very structure of your class can be changed over time, and the crafting system proves to be one of the best examples from an RPG Maker release to date. Top all this off with some genuinely rewarding changes and shifts every time you revisit major locations as the story advances, and you're left with a criminally underrated gem of a game. With Last Dream's lengthy expansion close to completion, there's never been a better time to grab this one.
Current discount: 75/66%
Much like the above entry, Elven Legacy is one of those games which seems to be perpetually discounted. Between being often so heavily reduced that it costs the fraction of the average supermarket sandwich and its outdated graphics, many tend to pass this one over as being some bargain bin failure. However, this couldn't be further from the truth, as the experience experiments with many traditional turn-based and army building formulas.
The actual lore and style on display here will seem very faimilar to fans of Games Workshop. Alongside the exaggerated pauldrons and big tusked orcs, the elves themselves are not exactly polite and the human faction is an odd mix of ye olde French and Germanic qualities. However, the appeal here comes from seeing things from the elves' perspective, arrogant and manipulative as it is, rather than using them as a secondary enemy. Seeking to lock away the forbidden knowledge and believing the lesser races cannot be trusted to confront the darkness creeping back into the corners of the world.
There's a definite element of self-parody on display here, delving into Warhammer Fantasy style satire at times, but this is largely limited to the brief cutscenes. Like many releases of this era this means you get about two minutes of story and a two hour long mission, albeit a very fun and enjoyable one with a few twists. For starters, this is one of those few turn based army releases where your units carry over from one battle to the next. Requiring you to divide your points between leveling up existing forces and buying essential new forces, there's a great deal of planning and thought to be had outside of the battlefield. No single unit is invincible, so while a massively over-leveled dragon might hold its own for a while, the right units will shred it in moments. However, you can't simply opt to spam units en mass thanks to mission limitations, and the bonus abilities offered from leveled up are too useful to simply overlook.
Once you reach the battlefield itself, you'll quickly notice just how layered and complex each engagement is. Formations and careful planning are essential to any victory, and leaving one side exposed or trying to wing it will result in a quick death. That makes every victory all the more satisfying though, especially when you drag your foe into a trap or nail multiple targets at once. As each and every side has completely unique units, there is still an element of trial and error to be had here though, and certain missions will be quick to throw curve balls your way. Some of these can stem from the sudden arrival of new foes or abrupt power-ups, to timed missions which can directly affect the mission. For example, an early mission can allow summon an advanced and powerful dragon if you move fast enough, and later ones will hide away wargear in distant corners of the map.
While the story might be a somewhat predictable (and facepalming) affair at times and it can push your GPU a little too hard, the mechanics see this one through. If you're after a great alternative to Heroes of Might and Magic, definitely grab this one at the earliest opportunity.
Echoes Of Aetheria/Skyborn
Current discount: 72%
Yes, this one is a tie but with good reason. Both are by the same developer, both have been built with RPG Maker, and both retain many of the core qualities which made them so engaging. Oh, and both have been bundled together in this current sale along with other games.
As with some previous examples, we have previously reviewed both Skyborn and Echoes, but let's stick with the core essentials -
Skyborn is the earlier of the two, compressing many of the most beloved qualities of classic RPGs into a brief but fun experience. Tailored to those desiring a relatively short but world shaking story, the experience lasts a good eight to ten hours. However, it still retains strong characterisation, a very likable party of diverse characters, and an ancient mystery worthy of any SquareEnix game. The combat itself is solidly made with a focus upon using an aggro-system to balance out damage, timing and impact during prolonged fights. There's a little more depth offered by the multitude of sidequests on offer which can be completed with a small amount of backtracking. It does a great job of hiding what is a surprisingly linear game once you finally finish it, and there's a solid variety of environments sprinkled throughout its length. This is very much a bite sized release but it earns every penny, and it's well worth picking up by those who don't have the time for a full blown JRPG release.
Echoes Of Aetheria is a massive scale, world spanning story by comparison. Featuring a very different combat system with a grid-based combat arena, the emphasis is instead placed upon keeping your own party in formation while dragging the enemy out of formation. Pulling mages or engineers out from behind the tanks allows them to be quickly destroyed, while pushing enemies into single groups means they're more easily targeted by AOE spells. Timing remains an essential element as you need to charge up certain abilities as well, and multiple secondary quests or new abilities can emerge at every turn. The linearity of the environments are unfortunately more noticeable here as they don't flow from one to the next and you instead travel about via worldmap. This said, the ability to quickly backtrack proves to be a godsend many times over, and the multiple narrative twists are hard hitting at each turn.
If this is short, it's only because we've got full reviews on here already. These are both well worth any cash you drop on them, and as classically inspired RPG releases go you can't do much better than Dancing Dragon.
Current discount: 75%
As easily the most visually distinct release on this list, Apotheon is surprisingly both well known and utterly overlooked. Really, for the first week of its release there was a surprisingly massive splash but then nada. Without showing a screenshot, you'd be lucky to find someone who remembers this one, and that's truly disheartening. While the ancient Greek artwork is stunning and a true testament to the entire creative team, it tends to overshadow its other qualities.
Playing out as an oddly metroidvania style release, it focuses more upon hack and slash elements over true problem solving or backtracking. While there is the odd puzzle to engage with or NPC to confront, most of it will boil down to stabbing things, which Apotheon utterly nails. The controls are extremely tight and very responsive when it comes to even the slightest movement, switching back and forth between an array of weapons as needed. These are classed in terms of speed, range and damage, with no one truly being superior to any other until quite some way into the game. What's more though, you can't just blitz through fights as your hero retains a limited stamina bar and weapons degrade over time. Both of these prevent players from simply spamming attacks and reward precision over mere flailing assaults.
While the story itself is relatively basic (Zeus killed your hometown, thus you must kill Zeus) there is a surprising number of side-quests which helps to give this game life. While certainly basic and boiling down to exploring, looting or killing, the specifics of each task is remarkably varied and rarely resorts to the usual "collect ten bear arses" which plagued MMOs and RPGs alike since their inception. These in turn link into merchant choices and a number of crafting systems, which combined with stamina system makes it feel akin to a Dark Souls.
Finally though, we have the big boss battles. Even limited to a single, very minimalist, artistic style and was a little too fond of giants, each proved to be incredibly creative. The multi-tiered combat sequence against Goliath and sea based battle to bring down Poseidon are stand-out examples, each more frantic and knife-edge than the last. The second you think you've nailed the exact tactics required for the job and pattern of attack, they change entirely or pull a fast one on you.
There's little else to say on this one at all - Anything it tries it accomplishes damn near perfectly. If you have any love at all of for extremely combat heavy platformers definitely grab this one before the sale draws to a close.
Current discount: 65%
While lacking some of the fine polish of other titles on here, there's no denying that Toren well and truly deserves its place on this list. The story here is one of rebirth and accomplishment, rising to the challenge as it is offered and discovering a new tale among the ruins of an older era. From the very start there's a great sense of mystery as to what exactly is going on, but an extremely engaging one as the truth is slowly peeled away. Gradually you come to learn of the history behind the place, the world and how things came to be, but it never drowns the player in exposition. Instead it's worked into the game's tasks, giving you brief shreds of a greater tale as it goes on, something not too dissimilar to Journey's own saga.
The visuals and presentation are key to its success and much of the actual gameplay comes down to a series of platforming segments. While there is some combat present in the game, it's fairly limited, allowing for a very light and almost casual experience in comparison to the many others on this list. This is actually to the game's benefit, allowing far more opportunities to truly admire the environments and explore the ruins, especially given the unique and creative decisions present in each one. Really, if you grab this actually stop and take a few minutes to admire what is going on, and you might find yourself surprised at the level of detail put into how each area is structured.
Toren also manages to reflect the passage of time far better than many other games of its genre, with the environment subtly shifting as you move up through a ruined tower. This is evident through the protagonist as much as the slow decay or growing fauna, something which is bold at first but becomes surprisingly more subtle as you move towards the end. It's a nice touch given the emphasis upon age and a new generation overtaking the old one, and it's only further reflected in the rather cryptic finale.
Now, Toren does unfortunately have a few problematic shortcomings. For starters, the whole experience caps off at roughly three hours and the final boss battle is little more than an extended chore. What's more, the camera is your nemesis in this game, constantly spinning about to give the best cinematic view rather than actually being helpful. However, with that said, its positives do shine through and with a substantial discount it's well worth dropping a few quid on it to experience what it has to offer.
Current discount: 75%
Fittingly the last option on this list, Foul Play is simply out and out fun. While the others here have sought to have dynamic stories, a developed narrative or tackling weighty themes, this one is just a truly glorious beat-em-up with endless fun and hilarity from start to finish. Many of the best gags stem from its framing device, with the protagonist Dashforth recounting his demon hunting adventures to a theatre audience. This is naturally promptly played out in front of them, with stagehands and men in rubber suits taking the place of those old foes. So, yes, werewolves are guys in unconvincing wolf heads, robots are actors in tinfoil costumes and ghosts are displayed via swinging wireworks.
The sheer number of gags present in the theatre range from backstage failures to stuntmen not knowing when to die. Combined with the beat-em-up appearance and the artistic aesthetic, this has led to certain detractors unkindly listing this as a Castle Crashers clone, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Whereas Castle Crashers was extremely reliant upon loot hoarding and switching out weapons, Foul Play's strengths lie in its vast array of combos and QTE style deflections. Responding at the right time can allow a player to air juggle a foe for minutes on end or hurl an enemy like a cannonball through a swarm of weaker foes. This is definitely needed as the heroes themselves can't actually take that many hits. How so? Well, as the stagehands can't actually hurt the heroes, each impact instead lessens the audience's engagement with the play and ruins your score modifier. Let it drop too low and it is declared a failure.
It's definitely a simple system to say the least, but there's no denying it's extremely effective. Thanks to the extremely responsive controls and excellent staging - preventing you losing sight of your character amid a mob of foes - this is a breeze to get through, and that only adds to its charm. Really, it's not hard to get through and a determined gamer can shunt through it in an afternoon, but what will keep you coming back time and time again is the bonus objectives. A number of hidden tasks arise in each mission, alongside those listed at the start, often demanded by excited members of the audience.
The addition of a co-op mode only adds further replay value to the game, as its short levels and constant gags make it great for brief evening runs with a friend. Disconnections as a result of the game's netcode are rare indeed, and it's easily one of the most stable outside of Lethal League. Top that all off with some fantastic boss battles against a variety of fantasy foes, and it's an essential purchase for any Steam sale.
So those are the hidden (and somewhat forgotten) gems missed in each Steam sale. While there are certainly quite a few more out there, these are the ones which stood out for this year an just seem to have been forgotten by too many current gamers. If you have some cash left over from buying the Witcher 3 or the Bioshock trilogy, definitely consider grabbing a couple of these in the days to come.