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The Majesty of Little Things – Steam Next Fest February 2022

6 min read
Promo image for Lost in Play. A young girl with curly red hair floats above a picnic blanket on a grassy field. A yellow rabbit with glasses, a frog with a crown above its head and a gnome with a pointed hat and grey beard float with her.

Whenever world events become all-consuming, it's easy to forget the joy of little things. Those aspects and moments, however mundane or simple, that give us that small spark of joy. I own myself to often be guilty of this, as I'm sure many others do. But three times a year, there is something that will remind me that the little things are indeed the most majestic and memorable: Steam Next Fest.

Every year seems to surpass itself in quality and quantity. Hundreds of veteran and up-and-coming indie devs come together to share their projects from across a variety of genres. The first Next Fest of 2022 ran from February 22nd – 28th and indeed, the demos that seemed to stand out the most from the multitude were ones that opted for the simplest execution. Not overly flamboyant, cutting-edge or bombastic, but exquisite in their own little ways. 

As the resident Steam Next Fest fairy for Filmhounds, here are my Top 3 demos from this spring virtual extravaganza:

Title card for Beacon Pines. Three animal protagonists stand in front a sign saying Welcome to Beacon Pines, one shining a torch onto a book, one looking scared and the other blowing bubbles with gum.

If The Lord of the Rings has taught us anything, it's “even the smallest person can change the course of the future”. And Beacon Pines from Hiding Spot thoroughly explores this analogy with undeniable style and aplomb. Described by Hiding Spot as a “cute and creepy adventure”, Beacon Pines is a game of storytelling, choices and branching outcomes set within the pages of a mysterious tome. The town of Beacon Pines is a typical quiet little rural town, every day just the same as the next. Or so it seems. Out at the old warehouse, strange things have been happening after dark and young Luka VanHorn and his friends are the only ones that seem to notice. But the ink of this tale is not yet dry. As the journey unfolds, the past can be rewritten, actions altered and the very fabric of fate changed. The story has only just begun.

Choice and consequence are now commonplace in gaming, but Beacon Pines brings an exciting and fresh feel to it. The player plays not only the reader of the mysterious book but also protagonist Luka himself, guiding him on his journey through the story. Through exploration and conversation, Luka can discover ‘Charms' which can be used at certain points in the tale to affect the outcome. Sometimes in humorous, endearing and unnerving ways. New friends can be made, as can enemies. Luka can meet a grisly end or uncover dark secrets.

But whatever the outcome, as the reader you have the ability to return to previous points in the tale and experiment with different Charms to affect the course of the story. This is beautifully represented by a branching tree within the book, each branch representing a different junction in the story which you can revisit. And every turning point is narrated with enthusiasm and intensity by the talented Kirsten Mize. Her vocals are a joy to listen to and coupled with a magnificent hand-painted art style, this is a book you will not want to put down.

A story book is open with lines of text, one word of which is highlighted. Three small cameo portraits are at the bottom, relating to different words and actions.
Hiding Spot

However, you may want to exercise a little discretion when giving this to younger players. While the vibe may appear family-friendly, there are instances of profanity and adult themes, so keep that in mind.

If you never fail to be swept up in the twists, turns and magic of a good story but want to explore what would happen if, then Beacon Pines may just be the town to settle down in.

Download the demo and wishlist it on HERE.

PLATFORMS: PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch

Title card for Lost in Play. A stone gateway portal with two giant frogs at each side glows blue. Two children are running towards it with ruined stone around them.

As we move out of childhood and grow older, there is one thing we all sadly lose the innate ability to do: play. Freely, spontaneously, play. What we could do at the drop of a hat as children is lost as an adult through feelings of appearing foolish or silly. Even those with the most vivid imaginations. But Happy Juice Games remembers and Lost in Play will reawaken that faded intrinsic power. Brother and sister duo Toto and Gal begin what seems to be a normal day of relaxing at home followed by an afternoon at the park. But they soon found themselves drawn into a world of magic and mystery, talking animals and fierce monsters. And finding their way back home will put their minds, their mettle and their creativity to the test.

A single shot of this unbelievably charming invokes the warmth and lovable vibes of the likes of Gravity Falls and Hilda. The hand-drawn animation is so expressive and full of character it's impossible not to be besotted with it. As either Toto or Gal, you solve puzzles both item-based and Professor Layton-style and interact with an array of enchanted beings along the way. In lieu of language, Lost in Play opts for purely visual storytelling with speech bubbles and animations, with characters speaking a fictional dialect of sounds. Making the experience universally enjoyable was a prime focus of Happy Juice and this works delightfully in achieving it.

But the most endearing quality of the demo is the blurring of reality and fantasy throughout the journey. It is never quite clear whether a scene is real or the player is simply being brought into the siblings' imagination. And that's what makes it so enjoyable. It fills you with an unfiltered sense of joy and pleasure that awakens those powers of play that children can effortlessly tap into.

A purple forest clearing. A young boy with blond hair stand to the right looking concerned. Three frogs with red pointed hats stand in front of him. One is looking at a tin can, one is trying to pull a sword from a stone and one is trying to reach his hat caught on a branch.
Happy Juice Games

The sound design is just as charming. Warmth and whimsy exudes from this stellar soundtrack, from soothing strings while frolicking through grass to tinkling percussion and woodwinds while sneaking through a dangerous forest. The outside world will disappear in no time.

We may be all grown up, but the joy of play is something we should never lose. But with games like Lost in Play, it can be found again.

Download the demo and wishlist it on Steam HERE.

PLATFORMS: PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch

A mouse in a blue cloak carrying a pocket knife fights a vicious ginger cat. Presented in high art style.

Series' like Redwall gave many of us a fantastical taste of the world of rodents and movies like Ratatouille brought this into the modern era. Now, an indie game emerges to bridge the two. An “epic RPG of miniature proportions”, Small Saga by Jeremy Noghani is a 2.5D that combines the best elements of classic JRPGs with an anthropomorphic cast, set against a modern backdrop. The setting: modern day London. Beneath its bustling streets is the medieval world of Rodentia, home to many a mouse, mole, squirrel and vole. All revere the Gods residing above and live by one cardinal rule: never attack a God. But after an encounter with one that cost him his tail and much more, young warrior Verm burns for revenge. He will risk everything to reclaim his lost tail and deliver justice to those who wronged him.

Slick pixel art and superb 2.5D animation bring an enchanting sense of creativity and magic to this intricate rodent world, even through everyday items. Switchblades are colossal greatswords, lighters powerful fire magic and scalpels great spears. Guiding Verm across ice lolly stick bridges and facing off against the likes of the great Tiger of the Kitchen is thoroughly entertaining. JRPG fans will slip into the combat style easily with classic turn-based party battles, characters having the option to attack, defend or use an item. As they level up, party members can learn new skills and abilities to bring to bear. Both bravery and strategy are needed to emerge victorious.

A pixel art sewer scene. Two mice in green and blue cloaks face off against a large vole called Sava with a pirate hat and switchblade. Two rat thugs stand either side of him. His speech bubble says "Ha! Quite the smart tongue ya got there, little one."
Jeremy Noghani

And at the heart of this is a superb quality of writing and an engaging story. From what is shown in the demo, it could easily measure up to the likes of the great Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy titles. The melding of fantasy lore, rodent behaviour and modern day living is seamless. You'll leave wanting to delve even deeper. I would easily devour a whole book series on this premise. However, this is another title where some more adult themes and blood detail are present, so again a little discretion is advised.

Now you didn't think an epic RPG wouldn't also have an equally grand soundtrack, did you? Rousing Celtic jigs spliced with rock guitars back the battles. Flutes and strings illustrate chance meetings and pivotal conversations. It's a feast for the ears and a score to put the best bards to shame. Sorry Jaskier, the mice will take it from here.

Download the demo and wishlist it on Steam HERE.