Casual games have a secret. Many feel more like the adventure and roleplaying games of the eighties and nineties than Bejewelled. Not only that, but these days they have far more artistic details than their pixelated ancestors. These games are a trove of inspiration (and pretty fun, too). Here are six that caught my eye recently.
1. Snark Busters: Welcome to the Club
Snark Busters is more cartoonish than beautiful, but it’s a funky, modern steampunk world with an interesting magical twist: throughout the game, you travel between alternative universes.
You are hunting for the Snark, a universe-hopping creature that leaves a mess behind it, like a breadcrumb trail of destruction. This makes it rather difficult to follow, let alone catch.
In this first game of the series, you play Kira, a rather spoiled young woman who likes to play pranks and have adventures. She cheerfully takes on a dare to catch the legendary Snark. Spoiler Alert: She doesn’t catch it, but the game’s fun anyway.
The setting is either modern or futuristic steampunk fantasy, judging by the architecture and technology we get to see.
The introduction places the game 445 years after the invention of the steam engine, which means either Snark Busters is set in 2145, or the steam engine was invented earlier in the Snark Busters universe.
The story quickly takes a turn for the fantastic once you get on the trail of the Snark. You travel to parallel universes through mirrors the Snark has touched.
Sometimes the world isn’t very different, just reversed in small ways. Then, at other times, the change is quite drastic!
2. Dream Chronicles: The Book of Air
Dream Chronicles is a long-running fantasy series split into two trilogies. This is the first game of the second trilogy, in which you play Lyra, the daughter of the main character of the first series.
Lyra is half fairy through her father, and her paternal grandparents are heavily involved in her life. On Lyra’s birthday, she is transported into a strange, empty alternate universe.
Magic is almost its own character in this series, since Dream Chronicles takes the traditional Myst route of a beautiful world, mostly devoid of people. All magic resides in the hands of fairies, who have their own land and politics. These fairies are closer to the traditional Irish tales than the usual American interpretations – not all of them grant wishes, and not all of them are kind.
It’s a good bet the Fairie Queen of Dreams is involved – she usually is, as she has a major beef with Lyra’s family. Lyra has to find way home despite the Fairy Queen manipulating her surroundings.
3. Brunhilda and the Dark Crystal
Brunhilda is a fairly normal young woman whose aunt is a magic user. They both live in the modern world, which interacts with the magical world in a fairly open way.
Brunhilda’s aunt asks her to come to her apartment. However, once Brunhilda arrives, she discovers that her aunt isn’t at home. Instead, she’s left an unusual message in the form of a demon in a bag.
The demon tells her that the magical realm is in great danger, and that the two of them have to go save it, right away. Thus begins Brunhilda’s travels with a snarky demon companion.
There are some interesting intersections between the magical and modern world. For example, this is one of the early scenes, inside the wall of your aunt’s apartment in the modern world:
All of the voice acting in this game is of superb quality – higher than what I usually find in games of this type – and the demon is the funniest of the lot. Luckily, he’s with you the entire game, since he’s the hint system as well as a sidekick.
4. Enchantia: Wrath of the Phoenix Queen
I had previously enjoyed the Dark Parables series from Blue Tea Games, a series of games based on fairy tales. When I realized they had released an original fantasy story, I downloaded the demo immediately.
The land of Enchantia is in danger. The Phoenix Queen has awoken, and vows to purify the land by flame. It is up to you to figure out how to stop her.
Your character is Blue Tea’s typical silent protagonist, who doesn’t seem to talk to the other characters in the game directly, but still narrates item descriptions.
The game is presented in first person perspective, so the question of gender and age is left up to the player to imagine.
You do see your character’s hands occasionally. Unfortunately, due to plot-related reasons, the hands of this player character are uncovered, and, just as every single other character in the game, they are white.
Blue Tea Games has a particular asthetic that involves ornate, carefully drawn, fantastic scenes and objects. The objects, in particular, are unusual and worthy of note.
Note the small details, such as the jewels in the corners of the frame on this found object. Blue Tea puts a lot of effort into their game visuals, and it pays off.
5. Awakening: Moonfell Wood
In Awakening: Moonfell Wood, you play as Sophia, a princess who has been asleep for a very long time. In the previous game, she awoke in her castle, and had to navigate through spells and traps to escape. At the end, she made it out the front gate only to find that all of the humans, not just those that were in the castle, have disappeared. She then goes on a quest to find them, which requires her to make her way through the Moonfell Wood.
The Awakening series is simply gorgeous, with painted backgrounds and a lush, high fantasy setting. The gameplay occasionally requires a closeup view of a piece of a scene, and as much care is put into these as the main scenes.
Even the settings screen is ornate and covered with flowers.
The game is full of these fanciful scenes. They encourage you to wander slowly through the game, savoring all of the little details.
6. Drawn: The Painted Tower
If there was only one game on this list that I could recommend that you play on the basis of enjoying beautiful games, this is it.
The opening cutscene, with its art style and background music of a wistful child choir, reminds me of Tim Burton’s work.
The setting is modern fantasy, in a land rife with political unrest.
Iris, the king’s daughter, has a special gift. Her paintings are alive, and you can transport into them. The gameplay travels easily back and forth between the pretty, cheerful drawings of a child, and the gloomy depths of the tower in which she has been hiding.
One of the most delicious things about this game is its atmosphere.
Because of the nature of the plot, the game is full of bits and pieces of concept art.
If you’re interested in seeing more of these games, all five of them have a free hour-long demo version. Both the demo and the actual game are available for download, so you don’t even have to put on pants before you get to dive into a new fantasy world.
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