9 show-stealing games we played at Summer Game Fest

This year’ Summer Game Fest has been a bit of an odd one. As usual, it began with a long kickoff livestream packed with world-premiere game reveals. Though it featured massive AAA titles like The Last of Us Part I and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, it was a touch underwhelming considering that it had the difficult task of filling E3’s shoes. But luckily, Summer Game Fest is more than its kickoff stream. This year’s festival contains multiple digital streams and even had an in-person component loaded with demos, which Digital Trends attended.

Independent games stole both the digital and physical shows this year thanks to Day of the Devs. The indie-focused livestream was the highlight of a busy weekend, offering a look at a diverse range of titles, from Choo-Choo Charles to Time Flies. Nine of the games from that stream were playable at Summer Game Fest and each one was a highlight of the show. Based on our hands-on time with the titles, all of those games should be on your wish list.

Animal Well

a creature sits in a blue room in animal well.

Animal Well is a Metroidvania-style game created by a solo developer. That’s an impressive feat, as this is a 2D game loaded with secrets and stunning visual flair. During my short time with it, I took control of a blob-like hero exploring an unsettling world drenched in haunting dark blues. After solving a few puzzles and doing some clever platforming challenges, I snagged a firecracker and used it to blow a spectral animal sky-high in a gorgeous pixelated explosion.

I’m immediately intrigued by Animal Well, which looks to be a real love letter to games like Metroid while still being its own thing entirely. The trailer at Day of the Devs showed off a host of special abilities that look entirely unique for the genre, so I’m looking forward to seeing how much deeper the well goes in the full game. For now, though, the slice I played at Summer Game Fest is a promising start.

A Little to the Left

fruits sit in a line in a little to the left.

If you like relaxing puzzle games, A Little to the Left is a title to watch. The organization game has players completing simple tasks, from peeling stickers off of fruit to straightening picture frames. It’s all as satisfying as it sounds. During my demo, I got to complete a few different puzzles, all of which were soothing. In one, a pile of bread tags became a small jigsaw puzzle as I had to line them up so they’d all interlock. Each puzzle took anywhere from a few seconds to a minute, making each perfectly short and sweet.

With a daily puzzle mode planned, I’m excited to get my hands on the full release when it launches. It looks like the kind of game I’ll log into every morning to start the day on a calming note.

Bear and Breakfast

a bear wearing a blue hat stands outside his bed and breakfast in bear and breakfast.

Bear and Breakfast was definitely the most adorable game at Summer Game Fest Play Days. As its eye-catching title suggests, this is an indie game about a Bear who decides to run a bed and breakfast. During Digital Trends’ brief demo of the game, it fully delivered on that premise. It’s a management game like Two Point Hospital, as players must build and run the bed and breakfast. It’s also a top-down like Stardew Valley, as players will explore some beautifully drawn environments around the bed and breakfast and meet an eclectic cast of characters trying to help this bear achieve its unusual dream.

While our time with the game was brief, we can’t wait to go back to build and explore more when it launches on July 28. Bear and Breakfast is exactly what it looks like at face value. But when you’ve got a premise as ingenious as this, that definitely isn’t a problem.

Birth

a dead rabbit sits in a goblet in birth.

Birth may have been the strangest game at Summer Game Fest, but also one of the best. Its essentially a point-and-click adventure game where players explore a city while looking for bones and organs. They’ll eventually use those to construct a friend. That may sound kind of creepy, but it’s actually quite endearing — sweet, even. My quick demo mostly had me clicking around the city and solving small tactile puzzles to find new bones. In one building, I had to get rocks into an empty vase via a Pachinko-like mechanism. In another, I had to cut banana slices and properly arrange them on a sandwich by counting the number of seeds on each.

Every puzzle I encountered was a delightful little surprise, which is ideally what you want from a good point-and-click game. Combine that with its oddball energy and you’ve got something truly unique. Birth seems like a short, lovely puzzle game that I already want to return to — and I will when it launches this fall.

Desta: The Memories Between

a player prepares to throw a ball in desta: the memories between.

Desta: The Memories Between was a bit hard to understand before I played as it mixes an emotional story about a girl returning home after her father dies and reconnecting with old friends with turn-based combat centered around throwing a ball. After going hands-on, though, it became clear that this is a really fun tactics game where players throw and ricochet a ball throughout small but visually vibrant dreamlike levels. Unique enemy and party member powers look like they’ll spice each stage up too, adding more depth to what may initially seem like a simple strategy game.

The brief demo of Desta: The Memories Between didn’t really give a sense of how emotionally poignant and impactful the narrative would be. Still, it is clear that fans of tactics games will enjoy this dreamlike sports-strategy game from the developers of Monument Valley when it launches on PC and the Netflix mobile app later this year.

Escape Academy

a row of computers show a puzzle in escape academy.

Escape Academy captures the joy of escape rooms in video game form. While I was already impressed by the clever puzzle title when I played it earlier this year, the co-op slice I played at Summer Game Fest had me even more sold. My teammate and I were thrown into a four-story room that was slowly filling up with water. As a timer ticked down, we worked quickly to solve puzzles and crack codes by talking through each step like we would at a physical escape room. My favorite touch came when I picked up a piece of paper with hints for cracking a cipher. I left it pinned on my half of the screen as my teammate used it to solve a word puzzle. That attention to co-op play makes it a particularly strong couch co-op experience.

Set to launch later this summer, Escape Academy seems destined to be one of 2022’s true hidden gems. Its a quietly ingenious puzzle game that really understands the thrill that comes with solving an escape room. Plus, its theme song is a certified bop and that’s always a plus.

Roots of Pacha

a roots of pacha character pets a mammoth.

One of the most satisfying parts of a game like Stardew Valley is discovering new plants, animals, and minerals, then creating lots of new equipment with them. Meanwhile, games like Civilization VI are a lot of fun as you bring a civilization out of the Stone Age and slowly modernize it. Roots of Pacha is a farming life simulation game almost entirely centered around those concepts. As I explored the game’s Atone Age world, I was able to discover ideas that can be used to craft new tools and machines, yield resources from new animals, and more. It seems like players will always be unlocking something in Roots of Pacha. As Nobody Saves the World shows, it’s not a bad thing to overwhelm players with progression, and that’s even more true for a game that’s all about getting new ideas and building up a civilization.

Roots of Pacha even features seamless co-op, so players can explore, ideate, and create with their friends. Like Bear and Breakfast, this is a game that Stardew Valley fans should keep on their radar when it launches later this year.

Schim

a small black schim jumps between a person and a sign's shadows.

Schim is a platformer, but instead of hopping from one concrete object to another, players jump between shadows. Its utterly simple to pick up and play but also really satisfying to discover a new shadow to move to in hopes of getting a little bit closer to the human the playable schim was separated from. Sometimes, all a game needs is a simple but immediately understandable gimmick and premise to be a lot of fun, and Schim delivers that in spades with a distinct visual style to boot.

Even though it doesn’t look like a traditional platformer, fans of the genre will likely be impressed by this cute game about shadows whenever it finally releases.

Time Flies

a fly sits on a record player in time flies.

If nothing else, Time Flies certainly had the best elevator pitch at the show. Players control a normal house fly who has to live out its short life as a clock counts down. Lives are short — mine were no more than two minutes — so players have to move fast to check items off their insect bucket list. During my few runs, I managed to get drunk by sipping a drop of wine, spin around on a record player, and read a book. Each discovery was a new comedic delight.

Time Flies seems to be more of a quick art piece than a video game, but that was alright by me. I appreciate its creative charm, as it meditates on how brief life is through its insectoid hero. It’s a clever concept, one that’s unlike anything I’ve really seen in a game before, so I already have a soft spot for it.

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