Remember game demos? Back in the day, you often got the chance to play new games ahead of their release. It was a superb game discovery tool-, and it made buying games easier on the wallet, as you usually knew what you were in for.
Those who couldn’t afford games at retail price could also get a lot out of replaying a demo, and god knows I spent hours playing the Dead Rising demo before I saved up my pocket money and bought it. At that point, I had the measure of the game and knew that it was for me, so I picked it up from a gaming retail store chain that no longer exists… (remember those!?).
For many reasons, game demos have died a death over the past ten years, and I can definitely understand why. I don’t envy the task that developers face when they have to work more to build out a slice of their game before its release just so people can try it. From a money-making perspective on the publisher’s part, it also may benefit them that players don’t get to go hands-on with their game ahead of release, especially if it’s not meeting internal expectations. Ultimately though, this puts consumers in a tricky spot. You may have seen hundreds of games at this year’s E3 that you thought were cool, but how can you know you’ll like them if you can’t play them?
And when there are no trade shows or in-person preview events the media has limited opportunities to preview games. Some publishers have adapted and are using remote streaming tools like Parsec, but this still means that some games don’t even get played by people outside of the studio before they launch. If this process prevails, consumers can’t really make an informed purchasing decision, and games are getting more expensive…
But I have great news! E3 2021 has shocked me by ushering in a demo renaissance. Geoff Keighley has certainly been pushing for more demos over the past few years, but it felt like big publishers are finally getting on board with the movement this year.
Across E3 2021, Square Enix, Xbox and many other publishers big and small dropped demos for their upcoming games. The only downside is that many of the E3 2021 demos are time-limited, and will disappear in a short while, probably to stop consumers from getting too much out of them ahead of launch. Luckily for you, dear reader, I have a few recommendations.
Stranger of Paradise Final Fantasy Origin
If you’re going to kill chaos, you’re going to have to do it before June 26. Square Enix’s new Final Fantasy Souls-like had a tricky start on the PlayStation Store, but it’s now available to play in its entirety and it’s actually a lot of fun. Everybody joked about the daft narrative and the milquetoast protagonist, but the good part is that the game was actually made in collaboration with Team Ninja and Koei Tecmo, who are responsible for the Nioh series. For my money, Nioh 2 is the best non-From Software soulslike ever made, and the studio’s talent shows in Final Fantasy Origin’s haptic combat system.
You can catch enemy attacks and throw them back in their face, and you build stamina and mana power with parries, so it’s got fantastic risk vs. reward gameplay. It’s not just a Nioh reskin though, a lot of thought has been put into making it feel like Final Fantasy, down to the Mage class that lets you use all of the iconic elemental FF spells like Aero and Blizzaga. It’s not perfect, but the way it adapts the job system is promising, and I’m still morbidly curious about what’s going on with the story…
But if you want art direction and tranquil bliss, look no further than Sable. With a soaring soundtrack from Japanese Breakfast and a Moebius-inspired thick-lined world, this delightful indie gem is going to make you gawp. You play as Sable, a young hero with a speeder bike in a world caked in desert. Between chatting to locals and exploring forgotten caves, you’ll complete quests and earn powers in this world where old and new technology seems in conflict with each other. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it has Breath of the Wild-style climbing! What’s not to love?
Sable is also part of Steam Next Fest, which has hundreds of demos to discover if you want to do some digging yourself. The top-down open-world survival game Len’s Island is a lot of fun, and so is Unpacking, a game about uh, putting things away nicely and telling stories in the process. If you were one of those people who took hours to find the perfect location for a lamp in The Sims 2, this is the game for you. Personally, I’m too impatient.
Last but certainly not least is Tunic, an isometric Zeldalike RPG where you play as a little fox. The combat is tricky but rewarding and the exploration is a lot of fun. It feels like there’s something going on underneath the surface of it too, which reminded me a lot of Fez, another fantastic indie game. And we can’t talk about Tunic without dwelling on the incredible music, which comes from the inimitable Lifeformed. You might have heard their talents when watching A Double Fine Adventure or playing Dustborn. They just know how to create melancholy and build worlds with their songs, and Tunic is really brought to life because of it. I felt deeply immersed and relaxed as I wandered around this world, strafing and stabbing my way through its cutesy enemies. I’m not sure it’s the kind of game I’d get obsessed with, but it’s definitely promising and feels like something fun I could chip away at on Xbox Game Pass if it comes to the service.
You can check out our E3 coverage here.