I love demos. I think Early Access is a great tool for indie developers to showcase and improve upon their work. I also believe that the content presented needs to represent the core of what your game is. I’ve played the version of Anew: The Distant Light that was given to me twice now, and I’m far from impressed.
On a fundamental level, it wasn’t fun. The full game will feature a “massive open game world” with varying equipment, upgrades and skill-based combat - so show me that. Show me what will make your game worth playing, what makes it special, because walking me through how to use a shield or wall-climb ability puts you in about the same standing as every other indie Metroidvania. I was given a gun pretty early on, and admittedly I’ve still got a thing for the twin-stick platformers leftover from my time with Bleed, so I was a little excited. This is not Bleed, and I think what really lets it down is the lack of response that enemies show when being shot. Particle effects are not enough to convince me that I’m shooting a rifle at a slug - the shunt from the shotgun is better, but with no animations to infer pain is being inflicted any satisfaction that could have been derived is taken away. This issue was most glaring during the car segment: running down the chicken aliens was pretty damn good until I hit one that was a little bit bigger. This thing barely acknowledged my presence, and my vehicle was no worse for wear either. I had to stop and shoot rockets at it one at a time until it decided to die for me. This obstacle isn’t fun, it isn’t challenging, there’s no point, so don’t make your player suffer through it.
The other vehicle I got to pilot was some ruddy great mech that moved about as quickly as you would expect from a ruddy great mech. This section had me walking through an area heavily populated by the laser-shooting robots that had been such an annoyance before, with me not taking any damage and not even really needing the deathray this thing was equipped with. Before that, there was a platforming bit in which I had to move through a room, avoiding the lightning balls that were being thrown at me from the centre. With player movement being as sluggish as it is, and with the shield only ever protecting me from the left or the right (and not the top, where I was being shot from), a room this densely packed with projectiles just feels unfair and poorly considered. None of this was satisfying the first time I played it, and it sure as hell wasn’t satisfying the second time. You might be asking why I put myself through this twice; yes, I am a masochist, but it was more a case of wanting to check that my initial reaction wasn’t unfounded. It wasn’t.
Visually, it’s tough to nail down: some of the settings are surreal and have a real sense of quality about them, while characters, monsters and basically anything close to the screen look cobbled together and disappointing. I don’t necessarily want to mark Anew down for its graphics because it is an indie title, but there’s a certain inconsistency that’s a little too jarring for my tastes. The grainy filter they decided to layer on top of the game was also pretty offensive; some environments were made far harsher than felt necessary by this static that doesn’t do the already mediocre looking action any favours. Credit where credit’s due though, the scenes where the developers really lean into the abstract is where I feel Anew shows the most potential. The initial cutscene is pretty unpalatable right up until the shot of the destroyed Earth, and the desert planet with bandaged phantom limbs climbing out of the distant dunes really is a shot that deserves praise. That said, when the game doesn’t attempt to be surreal, it’s painfully bland and I’ve seen it all a thousand times before.
I don’t think it’s harsh to call Anew: The Distant Light half-baked or unfinished (this is only a demo, so duh), but I also don’t think it’s out of line to call it mediocre, bland and lacking in ideas for original gameplay. At no point through playing did I say “oh this is really cool”, because I’ve done it all before. One or maybe two scenes (and background artwork at that), showed whispers of something more interesting, but as none of that was highlighted in what I played, I can’t give it the benefit of the doubt. Why would I, when the gameplay itself, the thing that often makes a game worth playing, felt clunky, unrefined and frustrating?
In all honesty, I want to thank the developers for releasing a demo - as I said, letting players know what they could be potentially buying creates this trust that can put a company in good stead with their audience. But for the love of God, make sure you have something worth showing, because if you put out a glorified tech-demo filled with nothing but mechanics I would expect for that genre of game, it’s going to take a hell of a lot of convincing to make me come back and buy the finished product.