Periodically, Steam hosts what they call Next Fest, a special event where indie developers from all over showcase their upcoming games with a variety of livestreams and demos, hoping to catch the interest of players. There’s always a wealth of unusual titles, big risks, and interesting debuts on display, spanning multiple genres and modes, and it’s really cool to see what the upcoming year will bring in terms of indie gaming. Horror gaming can be kind of a vast field sometimes (and gaming tends to chase trends as much the next medium), so I thought I’d play as many of their horror demos as I could, and report back on the standouts. Without further ado, here’s just a small sampling of the most promising horror titles for Steam Next Fest.
Developer: Bad Vices Games
Release Date: Q1 2022
Having fled their former home and upon arriving in a crime-ridden city, Percival and Hildred set about their business: murdering their unsuspecting customers and promptly grinding them up as meat to use in Hildred’s pies. Ravenous Devils is a game best described as “a Sweeney Todd business simulator,” where you juggle moneymaking, supplies, and time management as well as shanking random customers in the kidneys, stripping their clothes for the tailor shop you also run, baking them into pies (according to Grandma’s family recipe), and then disposing of the evidence. Each day finds you moving between the tiers of the couple’s building, making sure the murder-to-meat-pie pipeline moves smoothly, occasionally buying upgrades or dealing with issues that might arise. While the demo contains many sharp tongue-in-cheek moments, it manages to avoid both mood whiplash and becoming a straightforwardly comedic game by revealing (through dialogue and cutscenes) exactly how dark this world really is, walking the knife-edge between humor and outright horror.
Developer: Revolab, Ivan Zanotti’s MyMadnessWorks
Release Date: October 29, 2021
Billed as a “social horror game,” Mirror Layers begins with a mysterious invitation to an escape room in an abandoned apartment. After a voice escorts your blindfolded character into a room, dropping you in front of a strange statue holding a mirror, the eeriness of the game hits you like a ton of bricks. Using the mirror, attached computer, and social network comprised of other players, you can open more doors and explore the building. You can even send items through the mirror to other players who might need them, and receive items and plot hints in return. While the horror doesn’t jump out at you (at least, not in the demo), the unsettling atmosphere, the just plain weirdness of the setting, and the excellent sound design perfectly capture the feeling of being alone with something just behind you, out of sight. The full version also teases a Silent Hill-style dark world full of really cool monster designs, promising even more fright on top of that.
Developer: Vertical Reach
Release Date: TBD
Alex Young, a courier, wakes up in an unfamiliar library somewhere in an abandoned mansion. Her only contact is Torres, a private detective on the other end of a short-range walkie-talkie. With the aid of her new “friend,” she ventures out into the house, only to find a series of deadly traps, ominous symbols, confusing puzzles, and bizarre supernatural events. Tartarus Key starts out as a mixture of low-poly retro horror and environmental puzzler that’s a little weird at best, but the left turn comes quick when Alex finally makes it into the mansion’s twisting halls and is immediately confronted by a blood-spattered door and Torres locked in a deathtrap. Thankfully, the first-person point-and-click controls give it a feel like a more refined Realms of the Haunting than the clunkier tank-control of the low-poly PSX games that inspired Tartarus Key‘s aesthetic, allowing for a smooth, intriguing, and terrifying experience with a somewhat nostalgic retro feel.
Developer: Daniel Mullins Games
Release Date: October 19, 2021
The warped mind behind Pony Island and The Hex turns his gaze to the deckbuilding genre with this backwoods horror card-battler adventure, pitting your hapless seeker against a sinister, shadowy figure in a card game for your life. Taking a few cues from games like Hand of Fate and Slay the Spire, Inscryption sees you build a deck of woodland creatures and navigate treacherous lands, all while fighting to stay alive and upgrade your cards. The game’s unique aesthetic features a handmade look (the characters you meet are represented by the host putting on different wooden masks), creepy backwoods feel, and squirm-inducing mechanics (you have to literally blood-sacrifice your cards, and your life/damage meter is a scale using teeth as weights). The aesthetic alone would be enough to recommend this game, but things really get interesting when you get up from the gameboard and walk around the room, adding a new dimension to the world and deepening the mysteries surrounding you and your shadowy host. This also barely scratches the surface of Inscryption, a game that only grows weirder with each win or loss.
Release Date: TBD (“When it’s done”)
Look up at the screenshot that accompanies this entry again. That is the sight that greets you upon starting up a game of On Your Hands. It doesn’t get any less strange from there. The plot that gets you to this point involves a shadowy organization called The Wonder Project who sends you to their research facility on an alien planet so you can close a portal and stop an alien invasion. The actual plot plays out like a very polygonal puzzle-adventure game where you use seven colors of magic (equipped on either your left or right hand) to explore an alien cathedral and figure out who left you all these audiologs addressed to someone named “Prot.” While it can be obtuse at times, On Your Hands feels like a truly alien experience, and everything from the low-quality graphics to the alien messages you need special glasses to read reinforce that. Because of this, it feels really satisfying when you finally figure something out and decipher what some piece of equipment or spell does. It also ups the scares, as the plot breadcrumbs and hostile alien attacks make everything feel that much stranger.
Release Date: TBD (“Coming Soon”)
The Dream Crystal has fractured into eight shards, spread across various dream worlds. At the same time this happens, the dream guardian Gogi is abruptly captured by a shadowy and sinister presence. Your job is to travel through the dream worlds and reunite the eight fragments of the Crystal, solving a variety of problems and interacting with any number of weird dream denizens along the way. While there’s nothing overtly scary about Hypnagogia (at least not during the demo), it’s clear sodaraptor draws some inspiration from cult-favorite visual artist Osamu Sato and his phenomenally weird and unsettling 1998 game LSD: Dream Emulator. LSD and Hypnagogia both share the weird sense that even when everything is bright and happily colored, something is still incredibly off about all this, and when Hypnagogia turns up the dream logic, it’s more than a little unnerving.
Developer: Fiendish Fiction
Release Date: October 20, 2021
Nick is a recent high school graduate whose mother brings him to a cabin in the mountains to help him recover from a horrifying accident that claimed the lives of his two friends. When a storm leaves Nick stranded in the mountain cabin, he meets Felix, the eccentric son of the cabin’s landlord, and Grayson, the daughter of the cabin’s caretaker. But with unusual animal attacks, Nick’s own flashbacks, and the isolation of the mountain cabin, things quickly get tense. While the demo ends very early into the story, Up All Night already features a good mystery at the center of its plot, an expressive art style, and an endearingly quirky cast, all things that point to an excellent visual novel and definitely something to look forward to.
Developer: Cloak and Dagger Games
Release Date: TBD (“Coming soon”)
Right off the bat, Incantamentum is gorgeous. While pixel art’s been improving by leaps and bounds in recent years, there are some screens here awash in detail, and you can easily see the time and attention the team put into it. While it may be rendered in pixels, those pixels do incredible work. The plot itself is also kind of refreshing, taking more of a Campbellian approach to gothic horror rather than the Lovecraftian one most horror-adventure games tend to pursue. The plot follows Thomasina Bateman, a Victorian archaeologist, as she uncovers the mysteries of Hob’s Barrow, an ancient burial mound on the outskirts of the small English town of Bewlay. From the beginning, as Thomasina arrives at a rain-soaked mansion, the game is awash in atmosphere, which only deepens as she travels to Bewlay and meets the unwelcoming locals. While this demo, again, doesn’t get too far into the game (narrative game demos kind of have to stop quickly so they don’t give away the plot), what you get is beautiful, ominous, and a lot of fun to play.