Inside the best horror demos of Steam Next Fest: "Gaining traction for your game is tough, no matter how strange and f*cked up we make them"

Best horror demos of Steam Next Fest - Mouthwashing
(Image credit: Wrong Organ)

From zombie apocalypses to deep space terror, three horror demos stole the show for me during this month's Steam Next Fest. The resurgent interest in horror games can be partly attributed to the litany of big-budget remakes we've seen in recent years. The horror game renaissance, however, isn't just a triple-A thing; it very much owes itself to the indie horror boom.

Some of the best games of Steam Next Fest showed off truly delectable indie terrors that jumped straight to the top of my wishlist. The event might have wrapped on February 12, but the lingering impact of these bitesize horror demos has stayed with me. Below, you'll find my top three horror demos of this month's Steam Next Fest – as well as insight from each developer on what Valve's event means for indie horror creators searching for the perfect community.

Crow Country

Best horror demos of Steam Next Fest - Crow Country

(Image credit: SFB Games)

Developer: SFB Games

"Crow Country was born out of two hobbies I developed over lockdown a few years ago: one was playing PS1 survival-horror games, and the other was making games in MediaMolecule's Dreams," so says Adam Vian, one half of the brotherly duo that comprises SFB Games. Crow Country is one of the indie horror demos from Steam Next Fest that you're likely to have heard plenty about already, but the charm, fluidity, and picture-perfect nostalgia of it cannot be overstated.

That being said, it still feels like a fresh experience despite its PS1 graphics – and that's all down to Crow Country's unique conflation of classic survival horror and modern sensibilities. "A lot of retro PS1-style games might make everything low-poly, as was usually the case for 3D games back then. However, I enjoyed decorating the environments so much, they quickly became high poly – but, crucially, the filters on the camera made them look like the pre-rendered background art seen in Resident Evil, and in particular, Final Fantasy VII," says Vian.

These are just two of the touchstones SFB Games used in creating Crow Country, with Parasite Eve 2 and all the Silent Hill games (played back-to-back voraciously) as other influences. "Some people have also said Crow Country reminds them of Little Big Adventure, which, I mean, I see it. I love Little Big Adventure," Vian muses. "I love any game where the world feels like a little interactive shoebox diorama."

In terms of what Steam Next Fest has done for Tom and Adam Vian, it's almost a no-brainer. "We've had lots of new eyes on the game, lots of new demo downloads and plenty more all-important wishlists. Overall it's been a really, really important step in the run up to the full release. We got quite lucky, actually – Next Fest fell at a good moment for us this year." Does this sound like a little teaser that perhaps we can expect a full release soon? I might be getting my hopes up, but it's a good thing I'll be able to dip back into the Crow Country demo a few more times in preparation for the grisly full picture.

Play the Crow Country demo on Steam

Beyond Hanwell

Best horror demos of Steam Next Fest - Beyond Hanwell

(Image credit: Steel Arts Software)

Developer: Steel Arts Software

Years ago, I played a little game on Nintendo Switch that ended up becoming one of my favorite ever indie horror finds. Welcome to Hanwell's upcoming technical sequel, Beyond Hanwell, has only set that bar higher. I say 'technical' because, as Steel Arts Software's solo dev Nathan says, "it's a standalone project being treated as almost a completely new concept."

The Beyond Hanwell demo released as part of Steam Next Fest takes us to the streets of a nightmarish rendition of London. A miasma of evil and decay cloaks every inch as you fight back against the horrors that lurk all around you. "In terms of inspiration, the most obvious I think is the old Condemned series," says Nathan. "I’ve borrowed a lot of the ideas on combat and atmosphere from those games. Also, series like Resident Evil (specifically 7 and 8), Bioshock, Alan Wake, and of course Silent Hill had a major effect on me, which will inevitably seep into how I approach designing Beyond Hanwell." These influences are palpable in its grimy, atmospheric approach to dread and helplessness, and paired with its stunning photorealistic graphics, results in the kind of gnarly terror you can almost taste and smell.

Nathan cites the event itself as paramount to Beyond Hanwell's success in many ways, especially in these pre-release stages. "Steam Next Fest has been invaluable, and the value of the visibility increase on Steam can’t be overstated," he says, especially praising the community for all its feedback. According to Nathan, this increased visibility has seen Beyond Hanwell's wishlist numbers more than double over the course of Steam Next Fest.

It all speaks to the horror genre's resurgent popularity, as well as Steam's ability to help indie developers find their passionate communities. "More people interested in horror means more people to create for," says Nathan, "Which makes me extremely happy!"

Play the Beyond Hanwell demo on Steam


Best horror demos of Steam Next Fest - Mouthwashing

(Image credit: Wrong Organ)

Developer: Wrong Organ

Mouthwashing is an utterly fascinating indie horror game, and my fellow Staff Writer Jordan Gerblick agrees with me. If the concept itself doesn't draw you in – a lost spaceship with a cargo hold full of mouthwash, drifting about in the atmosphere as its inhabitants slowly go insane – its stunning point-and-click pixel art stylings will. It punches both the nostalgic and novel cards for me in terms of what I look for in indie horror games, fully leaning into its weirdness and daring you to explore its depths.

This game is a strange, entrancing, ominous little beast, but it's one that the studio has received plenty of attention and praise for. "Gaining traction for your game is tough, no matter how strange and fucked up we make them," says Wrong Organ's Kai Moore, and Valve's indie event "plays a huge role in the low-budget marketing campaigns for small indie studios like Wrong Organ."

The Mouthwashing demo gives us a taste of its dual storylines in action, the pre and post-crash timelines overlapping and chopping back and forth between each other. After the crash, the ship feels far more ominous. "Vents and pipes grow louder, more metal creaks are introduced as well as a low “feel it, don’t hear it” rumble to make the ship feel much more unsafe," says Moore, while special segments and horror sequences are underscored with music to play into a "dreamlike atmosphere." 

"Quite early on in the development of Mouthwashing we zoned in on describing the overall vibe as 'sunset horror' – this concept of a slow, languid type of dread," describes Moore. "We wanted to emphasize the waning hope of the stranded crew and how their professional relationships begin to strain the longer they are stuck." There's a distinct sense of unanchored, temporal loss in Mouthwashing – it's not a timeless space, but a liminal world that exists beyond the reaches of time. With inspiration drawn from the likes of The Shining, Twin Peaks, and Silent Hill, its untethered characters seem to reflect their drifting space-prison.

Play the Mouthwashing demo on Steam

These 13 games prove that 2024 is the year of weird horror.

Jasmine Gould-Wilson
Staff Writer, GamesRadar+

Jasmine is a staff writer at GamesRadar+. Raised in Hong Kong and having graduated with an English Literature degree from Queen Mary, University of London in 2017, her passion for entertainment writing has taken her from reviewing underground concerts to blogging about the intersection between horror movies and browser games. Having made the career jump from TV broadcast operations to video games journalism during the pandemic, she cut her teeth as a freelance writer with TheGamer, Gamezo, and Tech Radar Gaming before accepting a full-time role here at GamesRadar. Whether Jasmine is researching the latest in gaming litigation for a news piece, writing how-to guides for The Sims 4, or extolling the necessity of a Resident Evil: CODE Veronica remake, you'll probably find her listening to metalcore at the same time.