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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

Steam Next Fest 2024 Mini-Preview: Arco accelerates tactical combat and decolonization

Updated: Feb 11

Steam Next Fest 2024 is here! We'll be covering a handful of demos for games big and small that we think you should be watching closely. As with every Steam Next Fest, we encourage you to wishlist the games we cover and try some out for yourself from February 5 - 12.

There's something to be said about a game being exactly as advertised, exactly what you expect them to be. In all my years of watching trailers, playing demos, and otherwise figuring out which of the thousands of games that release every year I should invest my time in, finding games that are exactly what they promise to be is a delight — because the exact opposite happens way too often.

What I expected with Arco, the latest game represented by the skyrocketing indie publisher Panic, was a refreshing turn-based tactical action game with a beautifully subdued pixel art aesthetic and a narrative with surprising representation. And, well... it's exactly that.

The key art for the game Arco. It depicts a poncho wearing figure standing next to a llama in the middle of a desert, staring off at another two cloak-wearing figures staring back.

Just the Facts

Developer(s): Max Cahill, Franek Nowotniak, José Ramón García, Antonio Uribe

Publisher: Panic

Platform(s): PC

Release Date: 2024

Demo accessed via Steam Next Fest 2024.

Arco comes to us from a collective of artists from across the globe, without a formal developer name. With talents from Poland, Australia, Spain, and Mexico, Arco is truly a global game, and it comes through in its unique setting and narrative setup. Built in the underappreciated 2D game engine, LÖVE, this game looks to shake up the tactics genre with its simultaneous turn-based combat system.

Arco's multi-character narrative promises to be an interweaving tale of revenge, where the four heroes you control across the game's three storylines fight back against the colonizing Red Company in a variety of South American-inspired settings.

The demo only features a short 15-20 minute glimpse of the story featuring Itzae, a Kanek farmer turned warrior, in search of an old city's ruins. There are some light bits of exploring where random choices can result in buffs or items, but in the demo, the events and narrative are hardly present just yet, and we don't gain much context about Itzae herself.

The demo showcases the narrative on such a small scale, but it's worth a call out. As development goes on, I'm eager to see how the story that's promised takes shape — and how it's paired with the light cheekiness of the writing style that we've seen so far. The developers described Arco as a "not so western Western," and that's a perfect summation. They take the vendetta-driven feel of a traditional Western and use it to celebrate South American culture and the agency of a community collectively rising up to the oppressive colonizers invading their land.

Narratively, the demo's structure reminded me of FTL, with small events breaking up larger story blocks and all of it serving to give some sort of structure to the real star of the show at the center: the combat.

Because what I really need to emphasize is how addicted I am to Arco's simultaneous turn-based combat after just spending an hour with it.

A screenshot from Arco. In a highly detailed pixel art style, a character sits on a brown llama in the desert near a long, snaking river, and in front of them is a gargantuan white gnarled tree.

Beyond the tutorial and the story segment, Arco's demo features an arena mode that allows you to fully tinker with the game's combat system through a variety of challenging combat scenarios and get a glimpse at the other playable characters and their unique play styles. It's here that I truly fell in love with Arco.

So. Simultaneous turn-based combat. We've talked around it for a while now, but what's that mean?

In every combat encounter in Arco, you operate in two phases: planning, where time is frozen and you queue up an action or movement according to the situation, and action, where both your planned moves AND your opponent's happen all at once. What results is a calm chaos that is best embodied by the old idiom: "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry."

Where tactical combat is usually structured rigidly — with movement happening on a grid or some equivalent and the action not nearly able to replicate the flow of actual combat — Arco has this aggressive momentum to its turns that constantly keeps you on the back foot. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Demonschool, another stylish game that employs a similar planning and execution combat system.

Having to arc (hehe pun probably intended) your movement to avoid an opponent's bullet spray while positioning yourself close enough to them to do big damage is a delicate dance that is always enjoyable to figure out while playing. It's a diverse, simple yet deep, and addictive little combat system that I can't wait to master.

The difference between how simple it looks at a glance and how deep and different it feels as you experience it with each new character is baffling. Even though my time with him was the most difficult I had in Arco, playing as the hard-hitting but painfully squishy Ax was so satisfying. Having to get in close to do big damage and immediately dodge away was a fun push and pull, and I can only imagine how much more complicated it gets as things go on.

An animated GIF of the game Arco. It displays several scenes of combat where, time is frozen as moves are queued up and action explodes after moves are locked in. One scene shows a fight happening in a cave where one of the controllable player characters deflects bullets back at the enemy. The other shows multiple shots happening at once.

While Arco's demo only offers the tiniest sliver of what the game has in store, it left me incredibly impressed with what the team pulled off. I'm desperate to see what future boss encounters look like, where the story goes with its promising setup, and what other kinds of sick tunes await inside. (Seriously, listen to the game's main theme, it's so damned good.)

Arco is set for release in 2024 on PC, and if you like any of what you've seen or read here today, consider dropping a wishlist for the game to help it get seen by even more folks!

An in-game screenshot of Arco. It showcases the in-game skill tree for the character Itzae. An icon with a white heart on it is highlighted, the skill it represents is HP Up. "Gain plus two HP."


Read more February 2024 Steam Next Fest demo impressions.

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