With Christmas done and the New Year right around the corner, now is the time when most people devote themselves to the ongoing sales. As video games remain our wheelhouse - and it's something of a tradition to highlight the best bargains and underrated releases - this is a time when we go through the cheapest gems you can buy a dozen of at one time. That and, to help open up a few people to indie titles they might have otherwise ignored.
As usual, there are going to be a few omissions here. Why? Because they will have been covered on previous lists. If you want to see those for yourself, you can find them here, here and a somewhat related one here. They're all winners, so if you see one you like then check it out on the Steam storefront. The same goes for this lot here as well.
So, with that done, here are a few games which might take your fancy.
Bit Blaster XL
One of the retro revamps done right, Bit Blaster XL is Asteroids on steroids. Intended to be small, short, with constant replay value and a multitude of power-ups, it pits you against wave upon wave of enemies. Your job is to keep going until your starship finally explodes from sheer attrition.
Along with various objects to dodge and bullet hell style projectile patterns, you need to contend with collecting coins and remaining constantly mobile at all times. Coming to a standstill equates death.
A House of Many Doors
Praised for its rich story and dark gothic atmosphere, A House of Many Doors is an unusual take on any game. You are trapped within the House, a parasite which is seeking to traverse between realities and steal from them in order to survive. As you make your way throughout it on a steam train driven on a hundred pistoned legs, the world becomes ever more surreal with every story told.
While you cannot directly confront or combat the other beings about the House, you can turn various situations to your advantage. As the game's blurb promises "You are an explorer, poet and spy, launching yourself into the unknown in search of adventure. Rig an election in the city of the dead. Visit a village lit by the burning corpse of a god (careful not to inhale the holy smoke). Sell your teeth to skittering spider-things for a moment in their library. Over 90 bizarre locations await discovery in the dust and the dark."
Olav: The Story of One Boy
The first of several 16-bit style creations, Olav: The Story of One Boy is one of the much better examples of the walking simulator genre. Turning you into a part of the ongoing tale rather than rediscovering it, you play as someone who is starting to notice the injustices of his world and seeks to rectify that by seeking out likeminded souls.
The story here is the main drive, with themes of choice, life and connectivity with others. While it disguises this within a relatively mundane world, it uses this to subvert the more humdrum qualities of everyday life at just the right moment. It's an interesting and very different take on typical video games, but be warned that it is held back by a poor English translation.
Space Pilgrim Episode I: Alpha Centauri
The first of a multi-part episodic series, Space Pilgrim Episode I is a point-and-click adventure crafted in RPGMaker. That fact alone (along with the usual promises) should tell you this isn't your usual quick cash grab by a wannabe developer. This initial start to the tale follows Captain Gail Pilgrim as she ferries various passengers across Alpha Centauri. While certainly more diverse than usual, she expects this to be a typical cut-and-dry operation. She's about to be proven very wrong indeed.
The game utilises various minigames and small hunts to slowly construct the first part of a larger story. Through logical puzzles and backtracking, it's your job to ensure that everyone involved makes it to their destination without incident, even when the worst seems to have come to pass.
No, believe it or not, that's not a typo in the title. Orbt XL is another simple and direct game which sees you orbiting a black hole. Your job is to stay there and prevent yourself from falling into its centre by dodging the constantly inbound objects at every turn. The longer you go, the faster each turn becomes and the more objects you need to dodge.
Operating on the tried and tested "one more turn" mentality, its arcadey qualities are used to make it quick and simple to play. Due to the constant pull of the black hole itself, you need to vary exactly how you weave and dodge about the incoming obstacles, and track possible threats on the screen itself.
A very brief but extremely engaging puzzle game, Labyrinthine Dreams opts to tell the story of someone potentially hours from death. Travelling back to the defining moments of her life Beth, the protagonist, seeks to change and adapt to find greater meaning in her life.
The puzzles themselves are a mix of mazes, with many which are constructed to reflect primarily on one moment in question. This means that each one offers some twist, some unique alteration which helps it to stand out from all others and forces the player to rethink how they approach the challenge ahead.
Alien Attack: In Space
Taking the retro-inspired qualities of Bit Blaster XL a step further, Alien Attack: In Space operates on many of the same qualities. You have a single ship, you're facing down constant waves of enemy ships and you need to stay one step ahead of the enemy guns. The same old ideas, right? Well, Alien Attack operates on a much faster frame rate and a broader array of weapons.
Along with full integration of gamepads and joysticks, the game's difficulty varies depending upon your initial performance. A few easy or trying early victories will completely alter your overall experience from there on.
Breaking away from the space-themed games in favour of an underwater experience, Anoxemia sees you traversing the seabed in search of a few key items. You need to hunt down oceanic samples while maintaining your oxygen meter and avoiding the potential threats which surround you.
The game is heavily atmospheric, using deep shadows and singular colours to define each environment. While favouring platforming elements and logical puzzles, it gradually builds a story through visuals and excellent voice acting as your character narrates events to himself.
An anime-styled 2.5D platformer with a heavy emphasis upon combat, Blade Kitten is a fast-paced experience requiring precision and rapid reactions as much as sheer speed. It sees the player utilising a mix of long and medium range attacks to keep the enemy on the backfoot.
The levels found within the game are sprawling obstacle courses which use slides, jumps, double-jumps, wall-jumps, wall and ceiling climbs to progress to the end. This is limited only by a stamina meter, requiring the player to carefully consider their moves and time rapid leaps for as and when they are needed most.
One of the far more successful mobile style games to transition to Steam, Diamo XL is a simple puzzle which needs the player to quickly judge which threat to respond to first. Placing a ball in the middle of an angular maze, the player then directs it about the area, intercepting and absorbing threats before they can reach the middle. The longer you last the higher your score.
As with all such games, the challenge increases as you continue onward. With each successive challenge, the threats constantly speed up and become more complex. While you can call this a time waster or a simple thumb-twiddler, it's a mechanically solid and retains an oddly addictive quality thanks to its easy score system.
Blending magic with computer programming, Open Sorcery sees the player stepping into the role of a fire elemental bonded with C++ code and tasked with protecting others. This Shadowrun-esque experience is purely text-based and driven by a number of key decisions, which will alter and define the story as it progresses.
Along with the risk of more threats arising as you progress through the game, the choices will significantly alter how BEL/S - the program in question - will develop over time. Everything from gaining full sentience to risking deletion and making an enemy of your employers is all possible.
Doom & Destiny
A full-blown parody of standard JRPG games which promises "the nerdiest adventure of your life! " Doom & Destiny is a loving mockery of the genre. While mechanically stable and sticking to many of the usual tropes of the 16-bit era, the turn-based mechanics and typical quests openly mock them at the same time. Everything from the order of combat to the skills themselves is used for humourous effect, sometimes for a quick gag or in other cases to fully break the mechanics and the fourth wall itself.
The game is nevertheless a competent JRPG in its own right, if somewhat short at twelve hours in length, but bereft of many of the grinding and backtracking issues which often plague the genre.
Trick & Treat
With a premise worthy of a low budget 80s movie, Trick & Treat questions what would happen if a Halloween event went wrong. A group of children go about their rounds asking for candy while in full costume, only to accidentally end up in the house of a vampire. It's your job to guide them past the multitude of bad endings and to the only good one left.
Rather than full-on stealth, the game emphasizes logical challenges and puzzles. Figuring out the layout of the building, the clues left behind and possible threats is essential to overcoming many late-game threats, as is predicting possible future challenges. Plus, it's completely free, unlike most on this list.
A curious one by any standard, Habitat is set in the wake of a cataclysm, your job is to build a new home for people in orbit of its remnants. This means delving through junk, hunting through the debris field and picking out the few items of real worth left out there. Unfortunately, you're not alone out there, meaning that a constant priority along with resources to supply and expand your home is uncovering new weapons.
The game features both a full campaign mode and a survival challenge test to keep things interesting. What's more, as the game leans heavily toward the surreal side of things, your weapons are far from conventional. So, rather than a full turret, some rare defensive elements can consist of things like a robotic T-Red head which spits fireballs. Combine that with an excellent soundtrack, and you have a winner.
A notably grounded and surprisingly dour look at the life of a writer, The Novelist is a constant balancing act on the part of the player. It's ultimately a life simulator, where the risks, stresses and challenges of being a novelist influence your path. You have a single long-term objective to achieve and need to constantly devote enough time to complete it without losing touch with your loved ones.
A few notable decisions help to direct the story toward certain outcomes over others, and while these offer only general changes, a few can offer a few very negative long-term effects. This is one for those who desire interesting experiences and ideas over outright joyful entertainment.
Leviathan: The Last Day of the Decade
One of the visual novels which has attained popularity over the last few years, Leviathan: The Last Day of the Decade focuses more on exploring its dark fantasy setting over getting into someone's trousers. You play the role of a nameless dweller who meets with several members of the nobility who rules the realm, and the mysterious Plague King who resides above them.
The narrative and general script aims to tackle deeper themes than usual, with more of a Game of Thrones style internal web of betrayal and politics. The choices you make can massively affect any one of the characters you are associated to in a different way, and it is easy to be out-gambitted if too much is revealled to the wrong person.
Black Sails - The Ghost Ship
Another horror outing for this list, Black Sails is a point-and-click game following the survivors of a shipwreck. Having taken shelter on board another mysterious vessel, they find it seemingly empty. At least at first.
The point-and-click genre's main traits work in favour of it here, as the slow pace leaves the player vulnerable to the shocking twists, while hunting for items can leave you questioning what threat you might bump into. With a strong story and an incredibly well-developed atmosphere atop of this, the game is less an outright jumpscare than it is a slowly building sense of rising tension. You know something bad is coming and things will go horribly wrong, but you're just counting down until it does.
Race The Sun
Another in the "simple yet incredibly entertaining" category of video games. Race The Sun is surprisingly self-explanatory. You are quite literally racing the sun as you fly a solar-powered craft, and the lower the sun dips over the horizon, the closer to death you are. While the game doesn't focus upon the usual mix of circuits and tight turns, it instead requires the player to react to challenges ahead and the constant kaleidoscopic obstacles which arise in your path.
The road in front of you relentlessly changes and develops, with altering mazes and rising challenges. Mixes of narrow paths and ever altering roads allows the challenges to constantly change even as you close in on them.
Red Comrades Save the Galaxy: Reloaded
A revamp of the wildly exaggerated parody of Communists saving the planet, Red Comrades is a crude and overt point and click adventure hell-bent upon parodying itself. Set during a Russian civil war, it follows two heroes initially attempting to reclaim a stolen flag for themselves.
The artistic design of the game makes it visually distinct and suits the tone of humour almost perfectly. Along with this, it even has a few helpful mechanics which assists considerably in speeding up events, such as a much better item management system to keep track of when you picked something up and where.
Deep Under the Sky
A phosphorescent neon beauty which serves as a complex platformer, Deep Under the Sky is a difficult breed of game to exactly pin down. It certainly fits into the platformer genre, but lacks many of the usual essential threats and retains a much more free-flowing series of mechanics and movements to keep things moving. However, there's an almost leisurely pace to this, and it holds back from turning the game into a series of breakneck reactions.
The main challenge and objective is to complete levels in the fastest time possible. In constantly racing through the levels and swinging about the environment, you need to learn exactly how to slingshot your way about the level and to overcome all placed in your path.
A turn-based strategy of sorts, Shattered Planet is a constant challenge to survive a harsh world and survive in it. The rogue-like element of the game means that death is a frequent risk, and the threatening environment rarely pulls its punches. You relentlessly risk death and need to consider how best to conserve your few resources in the name of survival.
What separates Shattered Planet from many of its contemporaries is how it uses the turn-based system and grid-based environment to give the player time to think. Atop of this, however, the overall UI is incredibly streamlined until it can easily be navigated and items selected with a few basic clicks.
Bear With Me
The first part of an episodic trilogy, Bear With Me is a very different take on the Noir genre than what is usually found here. You play as a young girl seeking to uncover the fate of her brother while assisted by her sentient living teddy, Ted E. Bear.
The game has the usual Noir stylings with a few childish twists here and there. The actual tone and detail of this is balanced surprisingly well, thanks primarily to the game's refusal to wink at the audience and play things relatively straight-faced. Furthermore, the story remains an incredibly strong one despite the subject matter, with a genuinely gripping cliffhanger and a surprise twist to keep you guessing as the mystery deepens.
One of the more meta examples here, 199X experiments with subjects of free will vs video game characters, and what that means for one which has become self-aware. As it openly states "In 199X, you control Clara. That's the problem." As such, rather than the more playful turned horrifying tone the likes of Undertale opted to follow, 199X instead attempts to take the same time loop concept and lack of free will with more of a Lovecraftian vibe.
clara herself becomes more disturbed as you go through the game, starting over and over, slowly becoming aware of the medium she is in and having no control in her life. While certainly brief, it nevertheless raises many interesting questions, and it's the sort of thing which could have easily served as a Twilight Zone premise.
The Crystal Nebula
A rare example of a VR option on these lists, The Crystal Nebula is a direct and simple space shooter. Yes, we have had a few of those, but this one is notably different in terms of both style and presentation. For starters, the VR design means that the game has been built with directional movements in mind, with your head helping to direct the course and positioning of your ship, while your hands utilise the main guns.
Along with a variety of enemy attack fighters, your plane needs to hurtle through several interior complexes, Star Fox style. While there is no innate ending besides a scoreboard, your primary objective is ti retrieve every crystal dropped from enemy attack ships.
As the smart phones provide another screen, this also means that the main monitor is less cluttered, with individual user information broadcast to the handheld devices. This encourages communication, updates and information between players to announce their status or items they retain.