Hi! Long time no see. Sorry about that. Work and theatre kept me away from gaming for several months.
The good news is, I got to come back to an absolute ton of great, cheap gaming, some of which I would now like to share with you. Obviously, Steam will run its official winter sale towards the end of the month, and all sorts of discounts will be available even on the AAA heavy hitters, but in the meantime, all of the following are excellent games that you can buy for just a few bucks as gifts to a friend, a loved one, or yourself, just in time for the holdays. Hooray for thrifty entertainment!
This one was a total surprise that landed in my inbox last week. D-Pad Studio (makers of the fantastic-looking but sadly-not-yet-out Owlboy) have put together a game as a celebration of their friend and musician Savant, in which - as the titual character - you climb up the side of a perilous tower, besieged by enemies from all sides. It plays out as a bullet hell shooter, but with more freedom of fire and less freedom of movement than those games usually allow - Savant has only limited ability to dodge incoming fire, but can aim in a full 360 degree arc to take on his foes.
One of the most striking things about Owlboy is its retro-leaning but extremely attractive visual style, and D-Pad Studio has been no slouch in that department here, either. Savant: Ascent is challenging, fast-pased, excellent looking with great music, and $2. Two dollars! I was given a key for this by the developers but absolutely would've bought it myself. Get it on Steam, or on iPhone / Android if you want to play it on the go.
Originally a 3DS downloadable title, SteamWorld: Dig is what you might get if you crossed Metroid with Dig Dug, and then again with Spelunky. A steampunk robot cowboy must dig deep beneath a Wild West town to find buried treasure and unlock the mysterious secrets of his past. If that combined with the trailer doesn't sell you, this one probably isn't for you, but I had a great time with it. On Steam for $8.
Tiny Barbarian DX
Long ago, I wrote about the original Tiny Barbarian, which was a lovely freeware action platformer re-telling the classic Robert E Howard-penned Conan story, The Frost Giant's Daughter. Then Michael Stearns Kickstarted a sequel, Tiny Barbarian DX, and I interviewed him about it. That sequel is now available on Steam for $6, and I have played it, and it is delightful. Controller-smashingly difficult in the final level, but delightful nevertheless. Highly recommended.
Fans of H.P. Lovecraft take note - this is the best Lovecraftian, randomized, first person stealth-based dungeon crawler I know of. ...It is also the only one, but don't let that dissuade you. Sporting some very low-fi, almost Minecraft-esque graphics, Eldritch still manages to generate superb atmosphere via some excellent audio and good creepy level & enemy design. Different every time you play but also less punishing than many other roguelikes, there's a whole lot to like here. Take note, though: while the trailer emphasizes action, you'll be sneaking around as much as you'll be stabbing and shooting if you want to survive.
The price is a little higher than some of the other stuff on this list, but is still just $15 on Steam, and some holiday-themed DLC appears to be on the way. Oh, and a warning: not all the enemies in Eldritch can be killed, and the ones you do kill, if you loot them, will come back. Not right away. But they will.
Risk of Rain
Unlike Eldritch, this one is insanely punishing. Also probably the loosest adherent to the "roguelike" definition, but it's still got the randomly generated levels, items and enemies, and the permadeath, which you will be experiencing a lot. Up to 3 others can join you for this, and you may need the help. Multiple character classes, unlocked by making progress through a list of objectives, all have different skills to work with, lending considerable variety to your approach, but the longer you survive the harder the game gets. The aesthetics of this one may not be for everyone, but I liked it a lot. Also on Steam, Risk of Rain will run you $10.
Last roguelike on the list, promise! A top-down shooter. By Vlambeer, the guys who made Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing, both of which are excellent. This one's in Steam Early Access, but it's quite playable and enjoyable in its current state for $13. Fast, silly, and challenging. Tara Long's interview in the video above (back when the game was called Wasteland Kings) does a good job of showing it off.
I see my descriptions are getting shorter as I go, but Hexcells deserves more than a couple lines of text. Puzzle games don't always click with me, but I've always had a soft spot for Picross in its many incarnations. Like the satisfaction one gets from solving a complex Sudoku puzzle, the high of filling in the last box of a Picross puzzle never gets old.
Basically a combination of Picross and Minesweeper, Hexcells layers exceptional aesthetic design on top of some great puzzle design that relies on logic far more than on guessing. With plenty of puzzles to solve and no real punishment for failing and trying again, Hexcells would be worth it at $10 or $15, but the game only costs $3. Three dollars! This one isn't on Steam, but it's totally worth it to go get it directly from the developer. Thanks to RockPaperShotgun for pointing me towards this one - without them I totally would have missed it.
This one, I haven't had much time with, as the beta just started this week, but I know many people have been looking forward to it. If Terraria was Minecraft in 2D, Starbound is essentially Terraria in space. Explore a hostile, randomized planet, scrabble to build yourself a foothold, stock your spaceship, and take off to explore new planets when you're done with that one. I've only spent a couple hours in this but I can tell you that the look and feel are both great. Like a couple others on the list it's in early access, which means frequent patches and some missing content, but $15 gets you in the door if you're curious. Multiplayer is a big focus in this one, too, so feel free to bring a friend. It's dangerous to go alone.
He's probably friendly! (He's probably not friendly.)
So there you go. 8 exciting, inexpensive gaming options to help get you and your friends & loved ones through December and into the new year. Who needs a PS4 or an XBox One?