As the dust begins to settle from another hype-filled series of gaming announcements, timed for what used to be known as “E3,” one thing stands out: folks in the press, like myself, have fewer ways to go hands-on with the biggest publishers’ wares and tell you what stands out. Carefully staging bluster is easy; getting Ars Technica staffers to agree that the games in question are fun or interesting to play is not.
While a post-pandemic landscape has led more gamemakers to begin to offer remote game demos, none of the industry’s current “triple-A” titans offered me a way to play their most-hyped titles, the ones typically slated to launch a few months after a big June showcase. Sorry, Metroid Dread and Age of Empires 4.
Even so, plenty of other gamemakers were happy to offer me 30-minute slices of their cherished games-to-be, whether via direct downloads or cloud-streamed demos on services like Parsec. No, these are not blockbusters by any stretch, but guess what, games companies? You had your chance. And the indies took it.
With one major Steam-related embargo out of the way, I can finally begin telling you about my favorite surprises and delights I’ve tested thus far. Starting today, you, too, can access most of the below recommended demos via two massive options: the ID@Xbox Summer Game Fest, and the Steam Next Fest. Both offer full downloads of upcoming games’ demos, with 40 available on Xbox consoles and a staggering 550 games on Windows via Steam. The below list includes links for how to find the same demos I tested, with the exception of exclusives made available to Ars by the inaugural Tribeca Games Festival—whose limited game selection happened to impress.
Ogopogo: Coming August 27 | Demo via Steam | Official site
I’ve matched, popped, and dropped more video game puzzle pieces than anyone I know, yet even I did a double-take upon seeing this brand-new puzzling concept. After losing hours to the game’s limited demo already, I can safely declare this my absolute favorite game of E3 2021 and possibly a contender for my year-end list. Is Ogopogo this E3’s best game? Maybe not. But it’s my most-played game preview out of all of them.
Like most of my all-time puzzling favorites, the concept is simple, yet the depth stretches for miles: you clear blocks by mapping out palindromes.
The above screens demonstrate what I mean: use a mouse (or a finger, whenever Ogopogo‘s mobile port launches) to draw a line of colors that reads identically forward or backward. Red-green-red is a simple palindrome, made up of three blocks. A single block also counts as a palindrome, in a pinch—but you get fewer points for smaller clears, and that can end a run once the difficulty ramps up.
The game really sings as the challenge ramps up, thanks to pesky block patterns that require careful plotting to create high-value chains. The game’s demo includes one additional pesky mode, dubbed “Countdown,” that further boxes players in with a limited number of moves. And its creator says even more modes will appear upon the full game’s launch.
Seriously. Warn your loved ones, kiss them goodbye for a while, and download this demo. (Thankfully, the demo will save your progress, should life and responsibilities intrude on this game’s genius.)
Tunic: No release date | Demo via Xbox | Official site
Though I’ve played (and enjoyed) this Zelda-like game at conventions and expos over the years, the game has never felt as feature-complete or satisfying as in this year’s entirely new demo on Xbox consoles, which I played long enough to confirm its quality—then immediately deleted. Why play the demo for another minute, when it has already convinced me that it’s an incredible final product?
I already knew that Tunic‘s art design hinges on a bouncily animated 3D world, viewed from a top-down perspective, with tons of beautiful lighting and particle effects whether indoors or out. And I already knew that its mysteries unfold by way of a gibberish language found on various signs and items, with enough colors and icons to clarify the basic gist in the early goings (“you’ll need a sword,” “this door is locked,” etc.). What I didn’t know until this week is how crisp its top-down combat feels, as it splits the difference between Zelda and Dark Souls in a way that is snappy and tense, not punishing.
If, unlike me, you haven’t already been charmed by Tunic, I urge you to grab the free demo to see how its unique art direction bolsters the game’s mechanical core, which emphasizes a sense of wonder and challenge. Since this years-in-development adventure still doesn’t have a release date, its latest (and largest-yet) demo may have to tide you over.