Sable, one of the year’s most anticipated indie games and a favorite among Fanbyte staff, was far from the only game with a great demo for the Steam Next Fest. There were so many games you could try out — and try out many, I did. While not every demo made a lasting impression, there were 12 that stuck out to me for a variety of reasons.
This is a list of my favorite games from the week-long event; of the upcoming games that will stay in my head rent-free until I see more of them again.
Please Be Happy
Please Be Happy centers on a fox girl named Miho who travels to Wellington, New Zealand in search of a traveler who showed her kindness and what “home” could be. She can shift between her human and fox form, stealing to get by and seeing much of the worst of what humanity can offer along the way. When she meets Juliet, the owner of a small library (and my wife), and an aspiring novelist named Aspen, she begins to truly learn what kindness is. Maybe, along the way, she’ll even learn what happiness is, too.
I like to do a particular thing with lists. I won’t order them — except for the first entry. I will put my absolute favorite as the very first entry to let readers know how strongly I feel about it. Please Be Happy is a game I fell in love with in a way I didn’t expect. Its writing is poetic at times, while also incredibly dynamic and character-driven. I already have a multifaceted sense of its characters — even the more minor ones. Its cast is small but diverse; its art is obviously gorgeous, and the voice acting is stupendous. And, ultimately: I’m a simple gay. Give me a story about a cute girl who can fall for other cute girls that’s as well-executed as Please Be Happy is so far, and I’m over the moon.
You can wishlist Please Be Happy, which is set to be released later this year, here.
Cris Tales is an indie love letter to classic JRPGs in which a girl named Crisbell becomes a Time Mage. As a result, she gains access to the past, present, and future. This happens simultaneously, for the screen is split up into three sections to convey the differences your choices make. You join her and her fantastical crew of quirky companions on their journey to save the world from the Time Empress, whose power poses a dark future. I’ve had my eye on Cris Tales for about a year now, so I was excited to finally get my hands on it.
I confess I may have lied a bit with my last entry. I never order my lists, except for the first entry — but I’m making an additional exception here to put the Cris Tales demo where it belongs. I am amazed by just how much I loved playing it. For one, Cris Tales is extremely gorgeous. It’s vibrant, colorful, and stupefyingly fluid in its animation. To see it in action, both in terms of its visuals and its complex on-screen mechanic, is mesmerizing. The writing is lovely and brimming with charm, especially for its characters. The voice acting is immaculate. Kira Buckland, who voices Crisbell, may be one of my favorite voice actors, but she’s not the only one who does a fantastic job here. I enjoyed that the battle system is simple, yet contains the potential for plenty of depth through its parrying system and usage of the incredible time-split mechanic. I can’t wait to play the full game when it releases on July 20.
You can wishlist Cris Tales here.
Little Witch in the Woods
Little Witch in the Woods focuses on an apprentice witch named Ellie. In the world of LUCEREIN ORTU, apprentice witches must go to one of the ‘Witch’s Houses’ and help nearby villagers. Once the apprenticeship is completed, they can become formal witches — this is Ellie’s goal. She hopes to help people and makes the world a better place.
I’ve had my eye on this game for a while now, too, and I was amazed to see the visual upgrades it’s received since it was first unveiled. This game has been likened to a witchy version of Stardew Valley. Though I’ll wait to make that comparison once the full game releases, I adored my time with this demo. Little Witch in the Woods is so adorable. I had fun gathering materials to craft potions, which is done by using many different tools. Ellie is cute and funny, especially when she’s bickering with her talking hat. I love the aesthetic of this game, its whimsical music, and the breadth of things to do.
You can wishlist Little Witch in the Woods here.
Unpacking is exactly what it implies: a game about unpacking. You play as a character whom you will never see as they unpack belongings throughout the different environments they inhabit over the course of their life. It’s through unpacking their belongings that you learn their story. It’s a zen experience that is part block-fitting puzzle, part home decoration simulator.
I was surprised by how quickly I loved Unpacking. I almost skipped it, skeptical of what joy I could find from a process as painful as unboxing. It turns out — a lot! At least virtually, when you can click things into order instead of physically move them. Unpacking is so relaxing, adorned with a cute and colorful aesthetic. After the chaos of E3, I appreciated the sense of peace this game gave me. It was also really fun once I turned on the option to be able to put anything anywhere. This isn’t just because Unpacking forced me to come to terms with the fact I don’t know where anything goes in a home. It was just really satisfying to bring the vision I had of a specific room to life. To inject it with my personal touches, like putting a backpack next to the bed just like I would do when I was in high school. Or organizing a college dorm similarly to how I would have organized mine had a global pandemic not kept me from ever returning.
You can wishlist Unpacking here.
Bear & Breakfast
Bear and Breakfast is a laid-back management adventure game in which you build and run a bed and breakfast as a well-meaning bear named Hank.
I adored my time with the Bear and Breakfast demo. It is so cute! Seeing Hank do excited bear noises when anything went right was endearing. The dialogue is witty and fun, and it’s accentuated by an endearing art style that makes this feel like an easy and accessible game. I got so caught up in building and decorating my bed and breakfast one night that I lost track of time and only stopped at 3:00 a.m. The stress of how I was managing my establishment was quelled by the relaxation I experienced through constantly collecting materials. I’m excited to see how the story develops, as it was very light during the demo but is said in the game’s Steam description that, “as your business expands so do the mysteries of the forest, and Hank soon finds himself uncovering a plot deeper than the wilderness itself.”
You can wishlist Bear and Breakfast here.
Lake focuses on Meredith Weiss, a career-driven woman who takes a break from her job in the city to deliver mail in her quaint hometown of Providence Oaks. It’s up to you how she connects with people familiar and new, and what path she takes in life.
Lake was one of my most anticipated demos, and by the end, it was one of the most enjoyable. This is a testament to the good impression it makes, despite being technically rough. Objects constantly loaded in and out as I drove by them in my mail truck; the community’s cat lady had cats who would meow well after our conversation was done, and other bugs were present. But Lake has an undeniable charm even for someone who has no nostalgia for the culture and setting it depicts.
That will be a big draw for many people, but there’s much to be found in other places, too. The voice acting is fantastic, and the vibes as I drive around delivering mail are soothing. I also enjoyed the writing. There are nice hints at subplots waiting to be developed, like the awkwardness of reuniting with a childhood best friend, the distant relationship between Meredith and her parents, and the exciting attraction to the owner of the local movie store. (I especially enjoyed boldly flirting with Angie, the witty aforementioned owner of the movie store). I know I’ll enjoy it even more once the experience is ironed out by its September 1 release.
You can wishlist Lake here.
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No Longer Home
No Longer Home centers on Bo and Ao, two queer non-binary students who are about to graduate from university. They’ve lived together with other flatmates for a year, but with graduation come other changes, including Ao having to return to Japan while Bo stays behind in England. It’s a semi-autobiographical game about two developers who were similarly separated after university but managed to stay in touch by working together on No Longer Home. It’s a story about letting go and saying goodbye, with an extraordinary twist in something lurking deep under their South London flat.
As someone who just graduated from university, I expect stories like No Longer Home to hit me hard. The writing in the demo is unafraid to venture into the ugly, complicated feelings that come with transformation. It’s inevitable and necessary, but it’s hard to embrace — and I really enjoyed seeing how the two main characters grapple with this. No Longer Home is also visually striking in its isometric layouts and colors, which are prioritized thanks to a clean UI.
You can wishlist No Longer Home here.
A Juggler’s Tale
In A Juggler’s Tale, you play as a string puppet named Abby who is held captive at a circus. She spends her days entertaining audiences and her nights in a cage. One day, she has the opportunity to escape her chains and explore a bruised but beautiful world, pursuing freedom.
I’ve been anticipating A Juggler’s Tale for some time. While this demo was quite short, it was a good time. The writing, specifically for the narrator, is wonderfully witty. There’s a theatrical tone that I really like. I also like how Abby’s strings are used as a mechanic, adding a neat little extra layer to puzzles that might otherwise feel easy. That’s only based on the game’s opening, though, which is what the demo covered. The world looks visually lovely, so I’m eager to see more of it and Abby’s tale.
You can wishlist A Juggler’s Tale here.
Inua is a point-and-click adventure about three protagonists with intertwined fates across time. Separated by the decades between them, they are connected through their relation to Nanurluk. Nanurluk was a great polar bear who was killed by humans 10,000 years ago — a tragedy that led to the disruption of the balance between nature and mankind. You embody her spirit in order to restore the natural cycles of the world, navigating through time to interact with past events that affect the present.
The game’s central mechanic, which allows you to hop between time periods to find out truths and manipulate events in the present, is pretty cool. Each character has different motivations that you get to learn through their individual thoughts. I like the concept, as well as the real-life inspirations for the story. Inua is a beautiful-looking game that I’m interested in learning much more about.
You can wishlist Inua here.
Omno is a serene puzzle platformer made by a solo developer. You play as a mysterious little person who is carried by the power of a lost civilization and thrust on “an epic quest through lush forests, sun-blasted deserts, and frozen tundras — even to the clouds.” Along the way, you’ll meet fantastical creatures and gain magical powers.
Playing Omno was such a relaxing time. After the demo ends, you’re given the freedom to roam around a desert. I found the demo to be a quaint little experience with soft colors and a warm atmosphere. There’s an evident focus on nonviolence; you’re meant to explore and get to know this world, but not interfere with it. I look forward to seeing how the powers you gain will allow you to traverse these varied landscapes, and to learn more about this mysterious world.
You can wishlist Omno here.
Blooming Business: Casino
In Blooming Business: Casino, you get to design, build, and run your own casino. But it’s not just any casino — it’s one staffed and frequented by super cute animals. Decide your strategy as a manager and balance your needs with those of your staff (who are, again, really cute).
If you love resource management games like Two Point Hospital, this is a very charming alternative. I’m not huge on these kinds of games, but the bright colors and sweet-looking (but not always sweet) animals separated this from the rest. I love how colorful this game is, and how easily chaotic it becomes once your casino gets packed. It’s entertaining and makes me anticipate how the game could further embrace that chaos. It has special events, but I think they could be even more frequent than in the demo. They could also give clearer indications of how things turn out depending on your choices. I’m excited to get real creative — to hopefully put walls down, have more control of the layout of an area, and figure out good solutions when my horrible management skills inevitably push my workers to strike.
You can wishlist Blooming Business: Casino here.
Road 96 has you hitchhiking your way to freedom in a procedurally-generated road trip in which no one’s road is the same. It’s the summer of 1996, and you play as different characters who are taking the risky road trip to the border to flee Petria’s regime. Your decisions “will change your adventure, change the people you meet, maybe even change the world.”
It feels wrong to end this list with a game other than Road 96. Its demo was captivating despite its flaws because it’s so evidently full of ambition. That ambition resulted in a few technical issues, as well as feeling overwhelmed by all the information thrown at me. But its scope, even as a mere demo, is deeply impressive. Its characters are colorful, strange, and even funny. It wears its politics on its sleeve, though time will tell how that manifests. Road 96′s demo accomplishes its goal of only furthering your curiosity the longer it goes on.
You can wishlist Road 96 here.