I played 50 Steam Next Fest demos this week, and these are my top 5

Two or three times a year Steam hosts a Next Fest, where every developer and their mom posts a demo of an upcoming or in-development game. They’re awesome, generally speaking, ranging from fantastically broken and hysterically bad to outrageously good and perfectly polished. 

During Next Fest you can almost always find some indie gem or discover that a mid-tier game is going to be way better than you’d ever expected. They’re also a great snapshot into the development process—one that you used to only get by attending big expensive game shows like PAX or Gamescom or Tokyo Game Show.

Or you could do what I do: download dozens upon dozens of demos, fall into a kind of fugue state for an entire week, and emerge from the other end drained and exhausted and feeling like I’ve seen into the forbidden nth-dimensional futures of PC gaming for the coming years. 

This year I tried about 50 demos, setting my arbitrary limit at a combined 230GB and playing about ten per day Monday to Friday. Some I only played for a few minutes before deciding they were, in fact, very bad. Others ate an entire morning. I cataloged the 30-some notable ones in a Twitter thread that you can go read—but the ones listed on this page are my favorites.

Oddsparks

The most delightful surprise of this Next Fest, Oddsparks is basically an adventurous and brilliant combination of Pikmin and any number of automation games. Set in a whimsical fantasy world, Oddsparks doesn’t concern itself too much with being super hardcore, something welcome in the automation world. I found the loop really great: Grab a mission, explore the wilderness for resources, then fulfill the mission by automating a product or two… which rewards a new blueprint that you’ll need to go find some resources for and get to automating. It’s a combination of gameplay types so obvious I’m shocked nobody has done it before. (No, your giant Factorio drone swarm doesn’t count.)

Synergy

I’m a huge fan of games about ecologies and building a self-sustaining process. I’m also a huge fan of French artist Jean Giraud, aka Moebius—as are all right-thinking people. The combination of those two things in Synergy blew me right past my lukewarm feelings about Pharaoh or Caesar-style city building games and pushed this to the top of my most-anticipated games list—just like it did for Fraser

The basic concept is that your people are newly arrived in a harsh, hostile world where the water is poison and they’ll need to learn everything they can about the unknown plants and ecosystems around them. From there, they need to figure out how to build a sustainable life cultivating these resources and exploring the world beyond. It wins extra points because it focuses not just on material goods, but on social needs: Decorating your city with meeting places, cafes, and more alien amenities—scent gardens, for example—gives them the social stability they need to have kids and expand the town. Synergy is can’t-miss stuff for city builder fans.

Abiotic Factor

Look, as a man who grew up with Half-Life and all the other tropes of ’90s weird science, blocky shooters with a low top speed, and then came of age with the crafting game, I think I can recognize when I’m being pandered to. When I’m being pandered to is when a game lets me be some kind of weird PhD at a secret research facility who makes laser guns out of trash. Abiotic Factor is explicitly for me, folks, and it’s working because it’s a dang fun videogame. I urged people to try the last demo, and I’m back at it again.

I can’t help but love the cold open driving through the Australian outback, taking an elevator ride that reveals terrifying creatures from another dimension, and then half-assing a safety demonstration at the kind of black science research site where you do not ever half-ass a safety demonstration. The part where this thing lets me play cooperatively with my friends? That’s 100% pure buttercream icing on the cake, right there.

Balatro

Generally speaking I wouldn’t expect to enjoy a Poker roguelike. I think a lot of the fun from poker is probably in the bluffing, the social aspect, and the guess-or-be-outguessed nature of the whole thing. Reducing it to pure odds is useful for game design, I recognize, and I’ve enjoyed poker-based games before. Anyway, despite my dislike, Balatro is really dang good because it takes the appearance of poker and transforms it into something else entirely. It’s about figuring out how to play weird, illegal poker hands and use the odd superpowers that a Joker card gives you in order to push out bizarre and broken combos.

That’s before you just start doing even weirder stuff: Putting Tarot cards in your poker deck? Sure, why not, that doesn’t make any sense. This is a card game you’d play in a dream and wake up at 3:00AM and try desperately to write down the rules before you forget them. Except you could never do that because it never existed and there are no rules. Except Balatro exists. It’s right there. You can play it today.

Solar Expanse

It really wouldn’t be a list made by me unless I put a complicated-looking strategy or management game with a really weak interface on it, so here’s Solar Expanse. This is basically a space program management game extending from the recent past into the relatively far future, emphasizing the growth of space-based infrastructure. 

The demo is a short but tantalizing taste for any space enthusiast, as you begin on Earth, set up a remote colony on Mars, and then launch a human mission there. I particularly like the little interactive porkchop plots you use for choosing when to launch a mission, and the emphasis on doing stuff like getting telescopes and observatories set up on stellar bodies to scout for future missions.