For years, Steam Next Fest has been kind of like E3 for PC games… only it’s virtual, so you don’t get a migraine from all the noise and your lunch doesn’t have to be the overpriced and underheated pizza from the cafeteria. And instead of waiting in lines all day and getting to play maybe a half dozen games, anybody is welcome to download as many free demos and sample everything to their hearts’ content.
We’ve played a smorgasbord of this Next Fest’s offerings and with literally hundreds of demos available, we wish this article was big enough to give props to everything we loved. But here are five games that you need to keep your eyes on in 2024.
In the 1940s Pacific Northwest, the United States government experimented with strange new technology with the promise of bettering the world. Over half a century later, those experiments are now locked behind a 30 meter-high wall and those left inside were never heard from again. What dangers (and perhaps even nightmares) are contained within are what Pacific Drive thrusts you directly into.
When you, a delivery driver, unwittingly find yourself on the inside of the Zone, the only allies you have are some voices guiding you over the radio and the real star of this game: your old, beat-up station wagon. In every other game I’ve played that features driving, I don’t think I’ve ever once cared much about what happens to my vehicles. But in Pacific Drive, you rely on your car not just to get around more easily, but to store belongings, craft supplies, view the map, and more. If you collide with the environment too hard, you risk breaking off panels or popping a tire and in a survival game like this, that can be a real disadvantage. It’s all the more immersive when you have to manually do things like turn the ignition and set the parking brake, which are good ideas to save on fuel and prevent your car from rolling away, respectively.
All the while, unexplainable anomalies occur all around you. A few seem helpful, like dumpsters that spit out supplies, but most are antagonistic. Strange machines try to drag your car away, parts of the ground shift unexpectedly, and most things in general are in an unstable physical state. I had a particularly stressful moment when I got caught in what I can only describe as a storm that blew in from hell and just about wrecked my car as I floored it through the escape portal with 11% health and no healing items left.
In Pacific Drive, your car isn’t just an in-universe vehicle; it’s a vehicle to pull you even deeper into a world that we can’t wait to anxiously cruise through later this month.
If you’re tired of waiting for Dark and Darker to maybe or maybe not come back to Steam, may I offer up Dungeonborne as a promising possible alternative? Just like Dark and Darker, Dungeonborne is a dark fantasy PvPvE game that combines multiplayer extraction-dungeon-crawling with some battle royale spice tossed in for good measure. Before entering the arena, you’ll select and customize a class, from magic-casting pyromancers and cryomancers to the more up-close-and-personal rogues and fighters, with more classes coming post-launch. Each comes with their own strengths, weaknesses, and abilities which you’ll have to strategically play around against both AI enemies and other players.
In a standard match, you and any teammates you choose to bring along will search for treasure and try to find an exit without being killed. Any loot you escape with can be sold for better weapons, armor, and supplies to start the next round with. But be careful; you’re only ever one or two bad decisions away from death and in this game, death means that anything you had on you is lost for good. Get ready for possible salt when you lose, but major euphoria when you clutch out an escape. All the while, the arena slowly shrinks, pushing players closer together to force PvP encounters.
Combat is slow and methodical; this means that every item and every swing of your weapon has major consequences, so you have to be very thoughtful about going for an attack if it’s just going to leave you wide open for a counter. This ALSO means that I am not very good at the game yet and have died to a bug – as in a literal insect – in the opening seconds of a match more than once. And yet… I also kinda want to jump in for just one more go.
Again, no beating around the bush; in a lot of ways, Dungeonborne makes the list for filling the void left by Dark and Darker on Steam’s storefront. But if it has its “predecessor’s” staying power, the competition will only push both games to be better and better.
Speaking of filling in voids, I know there’s a Megaman X-shaped hole in a lot of our hearts these days. Anyone who’s played Capcom’s classic platformer will find it easy to pine for the days of SNES sprites, rockin’ soundtracks, and zippy movement. They’re huge shoes to try to fill, but Berserk Boy is daring enough to attempt living up to the legacy.
Like its spiritual predecessor, Berserk Boy’s core gameplay features dashing, wall jumping, and unlocking new forms as you progress. But whereas Mega Man is about shooting your enemies, combat in Berserk Boy’s demo favors physically ramming into them, at least with the demo’s two powers. The more hits you land within a limited amount of time, the more your combo counter builds up. The higher the combo counter, the more you’ll fill your Berserk Meter for powerful one-off attacks.
In between levels, you’ll fall back to your base, a laboratory of sorts that functions as a home for the resistance. For you, it’s a hub for buying upgrades to strengthen your move set, jumping to new missions, and revisiting old ones. Taking a page from Metroidvania games, Berserk Boy encourages you to do some backtracking to reach previously inaccessible areas, find collectibles, save up currency to afford that upgrade you’re just shy of affording, or find hidden paths to score a better completion time. And when it’s backed by tunes from the composer of Sonic Mania, Streets of Rage 4, and TMNT Shredder’s Revenge, every level is worth coming back to for the soundtrack alone.
Berserk Boy will bring all the “Lightning Justice” you can handle on March 6th.
Leave it to an underrepresented aesthetic to catch your eye and beg you to check it out. Drawing heavy inspiration from those anime OVAs from the ‘80s and ‘90s you maybe used to watch on VHS, Mullet Mad Jack is an arcadey FPS that hinges on an appropriately over-the-top premise. In a neon-drenched dystopian future ruled by robot billionaires, humans have merged with the internet into a new being that requires dopamine every ten seconds or else they die.
In other words, all of mankind has devolved into the incarnation of Twitch chat.
When an “influencer princess” with over 2 billion followers is kidnapped, it’s up to Jack Banhammer to save the day… while livestreaming the entire thing, of course. Whoever rescues her will win a pair of shoes as the grand prize.
With a setup like that, you think you understand what you’re in for. You are wrong. You are very, very wrong.
“Fast and frenetic” is too soft of a phrase to describe the pace of Mullet Mad Jack, but “coked-out rabid weasel that pounded ten Red Bulls and got into a chicken coop“ is a little closer. I’ll put it this way: if you can accurately and reliably describe what you just did, I’m convinced that you aren’t playing the game right. I think I kicked some guy into a fan where they were ground to a bloody pulp while I chugged soda and landed a few headshots at the same time… but I’m not positive. I’m pretty sure I slid down a slope and shot the head and/or nuts of everyone in my way before clocking another one in the face and prying his head off… but I blinked once and missed it.
What I DO know for sure is that Mullet Mad Jack is a hyperactive, candy-coated, taurine-fueled, good time that pays homage to the FPS games that defined the era it celebrates. And at the end of every randomly-generated level, you get to choose a perk that makes the next one even more insane. Swap your weapon to a flame sword, litter the environment with explosive barrels, make your soda cans detonate when you chuck them; as long as you make it to the end without dying, you won’t be kicked all the way back to the beginning again.
That being said, having another reason to play some more Mullet Mad Jack would actually be a good thing. It’s one of the most “feels cool to pull off stuff” power trip FPS games I’ve played since Superhot.
From the folks behind Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve comes Rotwood, a roguelike dungeon crawler where you and up to three of your friends take your furry avatars through the woods and clear out endless creatures like an old-school arcade beat-em-up. An arcade beat-em-up with endless replayability, an ever-evolving playable character, and the tension of potentially losing your build if you die; this is a roguelike, after all, so a lot of you out there undoubtedly know what to expect.
And the devs certainly understand the assignment here, too. The gameplay loop in Rotwood is like having a bag of chips in front of you: it’s so effortless to just go for one more chip or one more room over and over again without even thinking about how much you’ve consumed. While I’m not ordinarily one for these kinds of games, even I couldn’t simply walk away after losing to the demo’s boss the first time. Even though I had lost all my upgrades, I found enough encouragement to try again in seeing my XP tick up by almost half a level. Surely I could level up at least once even if I failed again, right?
Despite what the name might imply, Rotwood is absolutely gorgeous. The beautiful hand-drawn art style and impressively-detailed animations texture every character with personality, but what else do you expect from Klei Entertainment? Some of these enemies are so downright adorable that I actually don’t want to kill them. But then I wonder what new powerup I’ll get after I give them a violent, hammery end, so I slaughter them all anyway. The answer, by the way, is projectiles that come out of my hammer every third swing. It’s cool!
Have you played any other Steam Next Fest demos? Be sure to check out our suggestions and sound off in the comments any stellar game demos you played yourselves.
Nick Cramer is a freelance writer and video editor for IGN.