Back for its second year, the Xbox Summer Game Fest Demo Event — which somehow didn’t get a more palatable name during its time off — puts up 40 demos of unreleased games, generally indies. Over the past few days, two of us — staff writer Ari Notis and weekend editor Zack Zweizen — have given a bunch of these demos a spin. Some are genuinely terrific, and certainly worth your time.
You can find all of the available games in the Microsoft Store on your Xbox, either by clicking a dedicated banner on the “Games” page or by punching “SGDemo” into the search function. (You might need to play around with the phrasing to get all of the games to show.) The event wraps up on Monday. If you only have the time or the internet bandwidth to play a handful, make these six your priority.
If climbing was your favourite activity in Breath of the Wild, man, do I have a game for you. It’s called Sable, and from what I’ve spent with it so far, this open-world exploration game is fundamentally about climbing things. You climb sheer cliff faces. You climb derelict temples. If you see it, you can climb it. You have a stamina metre that dwindles with every passing foothold. When it runs out, you fall. Hey, at least there isn’t fall damage.
The first thing you’ll notice about Sable is its looks. You might point out the low framerate, a stylistic choice that would be weird for a game that demands precision but works because Sable emphatically does not. Sable is far less about doing than it is about seeing. Sure, in the demo, I had missions to tackle and people to talk to. But I wanted nothing other than to walk around and touch stuff. I genuinely think you could snap a screenshot of this game at any second — with any framing or composition, or with anything happening or not happening on the screen — and it’d be a MoMA-worthy piece of art. Pair that with a soundtrack by Michelle Zauner (whom you may know as the leader of indie-rock mavens Japanese Breakfast) and you’ve got the hygge game of 2021. — Ari Notis
I was ready to play Lake from the moment I first saw a trailer. I’m not entirely sure what got me so excited, but the idea of being a mailwoman delivering packages and letters across a sleepy lake town sounded nice. I’m happy to report that after playing the demo, I can confirm that it is, in fact, really nice.
In Lake, you play as a woman who has left the big city and her tech job behind for two weeks while she visits her old lake-side town. She grew up there, and while there she plans on delivering mail, letting the town’s older mailman get a vacation of his own. Gameplay in Lake is mostly spent driving an old mail truck around the quiet town and talking to folks when you stop by with mail. Dialogue options let you be a bit mean or more warm depending on how you feel. I was surprised by how satisfying it felt to drive around this ‘80s era town, dropping off mail and listening to the lone local radio station. This isn’t an action-packed game, but it’s far from boring. The only downside I experienced while playing the demo was some performance issues, which hopefully will be ironed out by the time the game releases later this year. — Zack Zweizen
Trying to describe ConnecTank would mean word-vomming a string of terms that mean little individually and next to nothing when considered all together. It’s a puzzle game, but also a cooperative multiplayer arena, and is a real-time tactics game that’s also procedurally generated. Look, a bunch of jargon will only obscure the fact that ConnecTank rules.
Rounds of ConnecTank progress in three stages. (This is all playable for one to four players, from an isometric perspective.) In the first phrase, you have to rearrange conveyor belts to create a pathway between an ammo-printing 3D printer and a cannon. In the second phase, you have to create ammo. Instructions — say, match “blue orb” with “yellow triangle” — play out near the top of the screen. If you successfully create enough ammo to blow up an enemy’s cannon before it blows you up, you win. The third phase plays out between rounds, as you navigate a hexagonal board, choosing who to fight, where to go, and what to buy at intermittent rest stops. ConnecTank is about as hectic as Overcooked, and the demo only gave me one mission. Can’t wait to see this one in full. — Ari Notis
Paint The Town Red
In real life, bar fights are nasty and dangerous things that can lead to injuries, death, and damage to a small business. In video games and movies, however, bar fights are rad as hell. Paint The Town Red understands this very well, as the entire demo is built around a giant bar fight.
In this first-person indie game, players take on the role of an unnamed person who must fight off a large crowd of NPCs who all sport big blockheads. You can kick and punch them, but it’s more efficient to find objects and weapons instead. Nearly everything you find in Paint The Town Red can be grabbed and used to beat up people. You can toss everything you find too. What I really enjoyed about this game is how the world is normal and calm when you start. Only when you start some shit does the bar erupt into a giant warzone, with NPCs fighting you and each other. One time I ran up to a stage where a band was playing, grabbed the mic stand, and chucked it at a person drinking. It was great. Not sure if this game will hold up over hours and hours, but it makes for a perfect, simple and fun demo. — Zack Zweizen
Sometimes you play a game and just know in your gut that it’s destined for greatness. Tunic is one of those games. The elevator pitch is this: Zelda, but twee, and you’re a tiny fox. You explore dungeons and fields from a locked isometric perspective. You can lock onto enemies by holding the left trigger. The first item you grab is a stick, though you quickly find a sword — after pulling it out of a pedestal fit for the Master Sword — and a shield. All of the currency looks like rupees; the red and blue ones put more money in your bank. Were it just another gorgeous Zelda-inspired indie game, Tunic wouldn’t be much to write home about, because you’ve probably played it before. But that, counterintuitively, is also why it stands out. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that trusts me as much as Tunic does.
Key here: Nearly all of the in-game text is of an unknown language, and there’s no way to decode it. When you pick up an item, you’ll see a string of inscrutable characters, save for — maybe — a sole symbol indicating which button it’s mapped to. You have no clue what it all means. But because you’ve played a video game before, actually, wait, you totally do. This stick? Well, it’s for whacking things. This golden amulet? Definitely a key of some sort. This piggy bank? Oh, just drop it and get a ton of not-rupees. Tunic trusts your intuition — and, because of that, it teaches you to have some faith in yourself. Powerful stuff from a tiny fox in a tunic. — Ari Notis
What happens when witches forget how to use their powerful magicks? They pick up some guns and build their culture around firearms, duh! Actually, don’t feel bad if that wasn’t your answer. It’s an odd setup for a game, but it also means I get a new twin-stick shooter in my life, and I’m always happy when that happens.
Trigger Witch has some strange lore, and while it’s not the main focus of the game, it was interesting enough to keep me playing through the slightly too long intro and tutorial found in the demo. But once the game (literally) throws a gun at you and has you popping enemies, things pick up. While the witches have forgotten most of their more powerful magic spells, they still remember and can use smaller magic tricks. For example, in the demo, you quickly learn how to magically dash through baddies and spikes, which is very useful. Trigger Witch isn’t the best feeling twin-stick shooter I’ve played, but the world and art help elevate it a lot. And watching pixel art witches shoot AK-47s is oddly wonderful. — Zack Zweizen