Steam’s February 2021 game festival has come and gone, and it left us with many demos worth talking about. With over 500 released, I was overwhelmed in trying to decide which ones to try. My solution this time around was to focus on one featured subgenre. I’ve always loved great narrative-driven games, so the story rich category really called out to me. Narrowing my options so much probably caused me to miss out on some incredible experiences, but it also helped me find a few hidden gems. So please join me as I count down the 7 best story rich games I found from the festival. Some of these received high praise overall, but all of them deserved the praise.
Oddventure certainly lives up to its name. It takes heavy influence from games like Earthbound and Undertale. I have to admit; this demo didn’t inspire me to purchase the full version. Something about it just wasn’t to my liking. But I wanted to cover it because I believe that others will find something here to love. The story is at times heartbreaking, but overall very comedic, offering a good blend of emotions. Many sound cues serve to heighten this as well. To cut it down to the basics, we follow a young girl as she and her younger brother try to find their way home from a bizarre world they’ve stumbled into.
The gameplay mixes RPG and exploration elements. This world is definitely one worth exploring, but it may be more hostile than the nostalgic art style suggests. In Undertale fashion, though, there are a few different ways you can dispatch your enemies. While exploring, you’ll find plenty of pinecones, and other natural elements, which can be used as weapons in a typical RPG fight. But if you’re so inclined, you can also complete battles through kindness or taunting until your adversary simply runs away. It’s unclear if the way you fight will affect your outcome the way it does in Undertale, but if I had to guess, I’d say it might in small ways. If this sounds like your kind of thing, I hope you’ll find out in the near future.
I placed this at the beginning of our countdown because, as I said, I personally thought it dragged on a bit. Despite that, it still stood high above the other demos I spent time with. The storytelling used here elevates the narrative beyond just a framing device for gameplay. I really felt for the characters. Showing a clear link to its predecessors also influenced my opinion. Undertale and Earthbound are among the best that the genre has to offer, and their influence is clear. The colorful art harkens back to the early days of the SNES era and gives Oddventure a charm I just can’t ignore, even if some parts weren’t for me.
6: Ghost on the Shore
Walking sims are very hit or miss, but Ghost on the Shore does a few things that help it stand out from the rest. The Steam page describes it as an “exploration game,” avoiding the walking sim nature altogether. Exploration does take the forefront, but the linear nature of the environment directs players toward certain locations in a specific order. Because of that, I felt very limited at first. But locating subtle nods to a forgotten history while investigating this space helped me look past the boxed-in feeling. This island holds more than a few secrets, and the experience of uncovering them enhances the gameplay.
As with most walking sims, though, the main focus is placed on the story. We play as Riley, who, after washing up on the island, finds herself mentally bound to a ghost. From inside her head, Josh explains what he can remember from his time living on the island. The more of the scenery you take in, the more he remembers.
What I enjoyed most about their relationship was the moments where I chose how Riley answered Josh’s questions. The two become fast friends, and their mocking dialogue does wonders to liven up the less interesting walking sections. The demo reveals just a small piece of the tale of this mysterious land, featuring folkloric beings, as well as other ghosts who seem oblivious to Riley’s presence. Once the game allows us to uncover the whole story, I’m sure it will be one worth the time.
This genre can be tedious as you try to locate the next objective, but Ghost on the Shore has found a way to address that. Josh and Riley’s bond allows for character interaction, even though no other person is visible. This story could probably still be told without Josh being there, but it wouldn’t have made this list. I feel this elevates the genre by fixing one of the issues people have. They’ve found a way to enhance the experience while keeping in act what a walking sim is expected to be.
If you’re looking for a more relaxing time, this is one that might interest you. With only a few days left before her big tea party, Teacup the frog has run out of ingredients for her tea! Despite the time crunch of the story, the pacing and music provide a very relaxed environment. It also features a soft, cute art style. Our froggy hero doesn’t leave the house much, so we get to explore with her as she meets friends new and old to help her collect what she needs for her tea. It’s not often you see a game that revolves so heavily around tea. That fact really helps Teacup stand out from the pack.
As you explore the map and talk to the townspeople, they’ll help Teacup collect the ingredients she needs. But before they can help her, you’ll have to help them in some way. The gameplay has a clear loop that doesn’t get old. You explore to find what you need for your tasty drink, then play minigames to collect them. The demo features a small but engaging puzzle and a race you have to win in order to collect some mint. The area is fun to explore, and the variety in the activities ensures that the gameplay doesn’t get stale. I’m sure all you tea lovers out there will thoroughly enjoy helping the protagonist prepare for her party.
What stood out to me in Teacup wasn’t the story it told, but the way the game tells it. The main character, in particular, is handled very well. Her animations convey her unease at being outside and talking to strangers. Characters mention this as well, but it’s clear to the player before that explanation is needed. The designs of important characters do this too. One character comes off as a bit boastful in his dialogue, and he’s shown with his chest pumps out proudly. The subtleties are what help it rise above other titles that tell rather than show.
4: Blind Drive
If you’ve ever been confused by the phrase ‘less is more,’ then Blind Drive is the perfect demonstration of the principle. When I saw that this was a driving game, I expected typical racing mechanics. How wrong I was. Where this experience sets itself apart is that it features almost no visuals. The plot follows a man who’s volunteered for a research experiment only to find himself blindfolded and handcuffed while driving against traffic. If you want to survive, you’ll need to use sound to locate oncoming cars. Because of this, headphones are required to play properly.
After each level, we receive a call from the shady individual who’s hired us. Like something out of a horror movie, he slowly reveals that he knows startling details about our characters’ personal life. Through audio alone, we experience a story featuring misdirection, extortion, and even kidnapping. The demo gives five levels to try out, but the arcade-style of each level gives plenty of replay value. Possibly the only thing I don’t like is that I’ll have to wait until the game’s full release on March 5th, 2021, to find out what happens next.
Games often place visuals as the primary method of storytelling. That’s why Blind Drive was a standout experience for me by it stripping back what I expected it to be. This leaves us with something completely new yet just as compelling. This could almost be an audiobook. But I don’t want to describe it that way because the story and gameplay share equal billing here. That’s a feat that can be difficult to accomplish. Maybe subverting our expectations is the key to standout narratives.
If you’re a fan of courtroom dramas or the Ace Attorney series, then I highly suggest taking a look at Justice.exe. In the year 2279, you play as a budding attorney who helps sentient AI and robots with their legal issues. The demo only allows us to experience half of a case but gives a full representation of what we can expect going forward. The developers are open in describing it as ‘dialogue heavy,’ which may turn some away. I did find myself wishing there were a bit less reading and a bit more decision making. But because of all the background the case gave, it felt very real to me. I don’t know if the game has an overarching narrative or if the story varies by case, but either way, it promises to tell very thought-provoking tales.
Courtroom games have a few typical mechanics, which all appear here. Preparing for the case lets us interview our clients and question witnesses. We’ll piece together evidence to present and arguments to help our case. And in court, we’ll try to win the favor of the jury. But what this sci-fi title does to set itself apart is introduce some light RPG elements. You have character stats that may change up the gameplay.
At the start, you get to choose a trait that might give you extra dialogue options when questioning witnesses. You can also select one of four friends to enlist to help during the investigation. Based on the actions you take, certain stats will level up, helping your character grow as an attorney. The demo version doesn’t give room for much growth in stats, but I’m excited to see how they affect gameplay once it is out.
Like the best science fiction, Justice.exe helps to shed light on difficult current events. The case in the demo could easily be applied to life today. But removing some of the reality from the situation makes it easier to talk about. I hope this theme continues in later levels, as that’s part of the appeal for me. The other major appeal is the genre-blending use of RPG elements. Ace Attorney and others like it tell exceptional stories, but the dialogue sometimes feels like a chore to read. There is just as much reading involved here, but it feels more personal because we’ve made more choices about our character.
2: Fate of Kai
Many people turn the other way at the mention of visual novels, but Fate of Kai does something truly outstanding with the format. Trylight Game Studio brings us a very literal interpretation of the term. The whole experience is played out in the pages of a comic book, leaving the story to be told mostly in pictures. In fact, the only words present are to provide interaction. The player alters the flow of the narrative by stealing words from characters’ thought bubbles and swapping them out with others. What one character thinks near the end of the chapter could even be brought back to the very beginning. Interactions like this give us the power to change the story completely.
With mechanics that so freely allow for interaction with the book, nailing down the plot is difficult. We know that our main character is Kai and that he needs to deliver a treasure chest to a castle. Our job is to change the thoughts and actions of him and those around him in order to help him get there. What I find particularly interesting is that we get to experience many narratives separate from the protagonist as well. At one point, our hero must cross a bridge, only to find it broken. We then get to travel back in time to see how it broke and try to stop the events that lead to it. I’m excited to learn more about him and the stories of those around him when it comes out.
I love the way this game plays with storytelling. It heavily emphasizes how seemingly small choices can radically impact the sequence of events while also showcasing the interconnected nature of people’s lives. It may seem like our actions only matter to us, but the nature of the gameplay here allows us to see how the butterfly effect leads other people to change Kai’s journey. A physical comic book might tell this just as easily, but because we get to engage with the book, it makes those lessons more compelling. We get to teach them to ourselves and have fun doing it.
1: Chicory: A Colorful Tale
I’ve seen Chicory featured on a few lists of the best story rich games from this festival, and with good reason. Developed by Greg Lobanov, who also brought us Wandersong, the demo showcases an excellent blend of story and well thought out mechanics. Chicory is in charge of wielding the magic paintbrush to bring color into the world. But when she, and all the color, disappears, her adorable housekeeper decides to fill the role until her return. The narrative may be a bit light, but the mystery is intriguing. I have a feeling a few side stories may pop up, too, as it takes heavy inspiration from the Zelda series. Where it really succeeds, though, is in its gameplay.
The main interaction here is the use of the magic paintbrush. Lobanov does himself a huge favor by really leaning into this idea. The brush’s primary job is to color in the now blank pages of the world. Part of the charm is the players’ freedom to color in all aspects of the world as they see fit. I found the color pallet a bit limited, but it changes based on the area you’re exploring. So it does get a bit more varied as time goes on. As you color your surroundings, certain objects react differently to being painted.
Some trees, for example, disappear when they gain color. This allows for some basic puzzles solved by erasing trees or growing them back. Upon completion of the demo, you even unlock luminous paint that will glow in dark places like caves. I can’t wait to see what’s in store as I unlock more uses for the paint in the full release.
Chicory stands above all the rest of the entries on this list mostly because of its mechanics. The story is certainly interesting, but I still would have enjoyed this game if it weren’t there. It appeals to us for the same reason coloring books do. We are in charge of what happens here. Even other players won’t experience its color the way we will. The way Lobanov uses Zelda like unlockable abilities to further exploration is par for the course. But giving us a single tool at the beginning of the game that is the only one we’ll need is brilliant.
The Steam Game Festival is an opportune time to discover upcoming releases to get excited about. A week ago, I hadn’t heard of anything on this list, but now there are a few I’m eagerly anticipating. These seven were just the best story rich games I played after heavily narrowing my options. I’m sure there are even more excellent choices that I completely missed. Whatever the case, though, I enjoyed these demos, and I hope you will too.