Next Fest is Steam's way of sharing upcoming games with the masses, providing a whole host of demos for you to discover and enjoy. It's no different here in February 2024, and today I'll be discussing my view of some new games to consider. A combination of commonly-wishlisted games, trending titles, and those that piqued my particular interests, perhaps some of them will find their way into your Steam library (and mine) in the future!

Remember you have until Monday (the 12th) to play what you can!

These are presented in alphabetical order.


Projected Release Date: Unknown.
Developed by: Ultra Piggy Studio.
Published by: Gamera Games.

Diceomancer is a roguelike deckbuilding game similar in layout to Slay the Spire. Instead of a class you put a deck together based on various colors of mana, then set out on an adventure across the randomly-generated map. Along the way you'll encounter enemies, treasure, and a weird cutesy girl who says she's a god and gives you the power to literally cheat the system and futz with numbers. Probably best not to argue with her. The art-style could come straight out a kids storybook, and Diceomancer as a whole has a relaxed, chill vibe to the gameplay and the ideas that govern it; like a board game session where the host chucks the rulebook aside and concedes "we'll just wing it".
That light attitude permeates through everything. One of the first enemies that might block your path is an overly-aggressive goose. Pig enemies slap their bellies to gain power. My deck started with me swinging a sword and blocking with a shield, only to end up blasting the final boss with howitzers and strange magic. This is seemingly the realm of a child's fantasy - probably that girl who claims to be a god - where the rules change on the whims of imagination. It's all rather charming and fun. The hand-waving of logic is most distilled into your powerful trump card, dubbed "The One Die". Purple mana revolves around chaos, and you can use it to your advantage by changing things you encounter with a die roll. That boss about to deal lethal damage? Roll the die and change the number to something smaller. Don't have enough ammo in your Cannon card to finish him off? Roll the die and try your luck. This seemingly can apply to *any* number on the screen, from their max health to the amount of cards you can draw in a turn. Its effectiveness seems only limited by your cleverness.
Based on the demo, I can definitely recommend giving Diceomancer a shot. It has strategic depth with the mana system, but also a laid-back attitude that is refreshing and enjoyable. I could see myself putting it on my wishlist - it didn't have that "OMG I need to play it!" energy, but sometimes you just want to relax and have a good time with a silly game. This appears to be satisfy that desire.


Projected Release Date: Q1 2024.
Developed by: Gravity Lagoon.
Published by: HypeTrain Digital.

Gatekeeper is an isometric roguelike focused on acquiring passives that build your character in specific ways; not too dissimilar to Hades in that regard. You are the titular "Gatekeeper", a guardian looking to find/protect the Heart of the Universe from the machine enemies that seek to take you down. What story was present in the demo was minimal at best, and that seems to be kind of the general vibe of the game. The narrative and environments are very "you're here to play the game, so let's ignore everything else and get to the stuff you want." Gameplay is seldom interrupted, even when you level up and are presented with upgrade choices - you either need to hover over and read them, making time slow down for a bit, or just go by the picture and reflex-buy the one you want. This was initially problematic, but with time and experience with the system (and the information provided), I got the hang of it.

I'm not gonna lie, my initial impression of the gameplay was not good. I loaded the first of two initially-available characters, dropped into a map with enemies who trickled in slowly, and was very bored. My pew-pew standard attack had no weight or "punch" to it, and even when upgraded it felt like I was flicking peas made of light at my enemies. The rest of the loadout wasn't particularly interesting, either, so it was a big letdown overall; I almost gave up on Gatekeeper without trying another character. Thankfully, the second class was much better: swinging a hefty sword felt good, the other skills were fun and flashy, and my build progressed in damage and effectiveness quite nicely. The enemies I faced were different from the first run, too, and a more interesting challenge. It was far and away a better experience, but it does make me wonder how many people tried that first loadout and quit immediately afterward.

Overall, I don't know if I can fully recommend Gatekeeper based off the demo alone. The minimalist presentation made the game feel empty and devoid of flavor, and the night-and-day difference between the quality of the classes was rather concerning. Updates can help in that regard, certainly, so that's always something to keep in mind. Playing with a friend could really help a game like this shine, as well, taking different characters into a run together and enjoying how they synergize. But, as someone with no friends and a disinterest in trying to corral strangers online, I will most likely give this one a pass.

Never Grave: The Witch and The Curse

Projected Release Date: Q1 2024.
Developed by: Frontside 180.
Published by: Pocket Pair.

Never Grave: The Witch and The Curse is a 2D roguelite Metroidvania, in what I would consider a play on Dead Cells with a small dose of Skul: The Hero Slayer. What it is *not* is Hollow Knight, regardless of what the flavor of the trailer might present to you. In Never Grave, you play as a cursed hat: you possess a corpse (who is presumably the titular witch), but can at any time bail on your flesh-doll body to jump higher or navigate terrain. You can even sometimes possess dead enemies instead - which is where Skul: The Hero Slayer's influence comes in - changing your abilities dramatically. As with many roguelikes, you are mostly left to your own devices to piece together the story as you do progressive runs. That said, the main element to the game separating it from Dead Cells is that you must also build up and manage a town from scratch. Materials you gather inside the
ruins are used to craft buildings and structures, farm crops, and upgrade your character for the future.
Gameplay was solid, fighting enemies for resources while looking for upgrades and/or the exit, but it is basically a Dead Cells clone - I cannot emphasize enough how similar they are in their level structures and general combat. Unfortunately, one thing they didn't manage to simulate (or elevate) was Dead Cells' music: the soundtrack of that game is simply phenomenal, while here with Never Grave I barely ever noticed it. A strong soundtrack helps the frustration go down after you die and have to replay the starting area for the 27th time, so having one so nondescript is a major bummer. My other complaint would be that the developers chose to follow Skul's mentality for Never Grave's first boss, which is to say it has a frankly absurd amount of health that feels like a chore to overcome. I will admit I gave up on Skul after a while, so maybe they (and Never Grave) change their stripes down the line, but that similar first impression made me frown regardless.
All-told, I can somewhat recommend Never Grave based on the demo. My brief time with the game was enjoyable, and I could see myself buying the game if it ends up on the cheaper side. If I had to choose between Dead Cells and this I would definitely pick the former, but there can be a place for both in this world. Especially if you have allies to fight with, as Never Grave features co-op for up to 4 players.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU

Projected Release Date: April 23rd, 2024.
Developed by: Surgent Studios.
Published by: Electronic Arts.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is more of a classic 2.5D Metroidvania when compared to Never Grave above, at least from a gameplay perspective. You play as Zau, who seeks to make a deal with the God of Death: return his father (his "Baba") who was lost to a sickness, and in exchange, Zau will bring three Great Spirits to Death's side. Kalunga, the aforementioned god, becomes your companion character as you set out, offering guidance and wisdom as you venture to prove your worth to him. Aiding you in this challenge are two masks, the Masks of the Sun and Moon, that you can switch between, each providing you different attacks and (eventually) platforming abilities. It feels very similar to Outland - does anyone even remember this game? - swapping back and forth as the situation requires.
The demo was quite simply great. The game begins in a very straightforward manner for the genre - "here's a path to learn how to navigate, now show me you can double jump, now here are some enemies to beat up", and so on. The character interactions and the African atmosphere and soundtrack are what set it apart starting out. That said, it's when you near the end of the demo and get your first movement ability - the power to freeze water, so it can be traversed - you are given a glimpse of true potential. What are the other abilities like for the Mask of the Moon? What about the Mask of the Sun? It's kind of a shame that the demo ends almost immediately after you put the power to use, but being left wanting more ain't necessarily a bad thing. "I wish the demo was longer so I could keep having fun" is a pretty solid endorsement of the product within.
Based on the demo I could definitely recommend Tales of Kenzera: ZAU. In fact, I've already placed it on my wishlist. Metroidvania is a solid genre with a lot of great games, but being able to express one with such a unique African flavor that is not often seen in the medium is a fresh experience. Honestly, what more could you want?

Rapid-Fire Reviews

This is a collection of demos I started but did not finish, mostly because I didn't enjoy them. Perhaps they are of the "just not for me" variety, but critiquing the demos that didn't pan out is also important.

Stormgate - An RTS through-and-through, much like Starcraft and Warcraft that came before it (which makes sense: Frost Giant Studios consists of ex-developers of those games). That said, there isn't a lot here: no campaign missions, only two of the three planned factions, boring visuals, and just a general "that's it?" vibe. Still early, of course, so something to keep in mind, but it's a concern.

Dungeonborne - The trailer kind of implied it could have a single-player, RPG dungeon-delving component, like a mix between Skyrim and Diablo, but it amounted more to "fantasy FPS Fortnite". PvP with some monsters thrown in, you have to survive, loot what you can, and find the exit in time before the arena contracts. I found the game to be slow and clunky, way too dark visually, and ultimately not what I wanted.

Rotwood - Roguelike with some presumed base/town management elements, seems like Cult of the Lamb minus the "cult" part. Base movement was too slow for me, wailing on enemies was boring, and after my first run I got stuck in town without a way to start another one. Might get better with more time invested, but initial impression was a bummer.

Mark of the Deep - An isometric soulslike/Metroidvania hybrid with pirate flavor, the premise is great but execution was a letdown for me. Clunky controls, empty environments, a soundtrack that cut out, and the game was difficult without being fun. Elden Ring is hard, but it's at least fun to play. Never unlocked new stuff - it was just "roam around, smack stuff with a stick, hope the dodge decides to work, and live to reach a checkpoint."

And there you have it! Don't forget you have until next Monday (the 12th) to play whatever demos tickle your fancy, at least until the next...Next Fest.

What do you think of these games? Discover any good gems in this month's Next Fest? Find anything worth buying? Let us know in the comments below!