This week's best free PC games

Lewis Denby at

At A Distance header

This week's best free PC games are reassuringly dark, given that festive merriment has begun to encompass our entire universe. There'll be no Santa hats here, grump grump. Instead, we have games about fear, solitude, ice wolves and Cthulhu. Well, I suppose ice wolves are at least as cold as December. Read on for this week's picks - including a fascinating new title from VVVVVV's developer, and an awesome take on the maze exploration game.

At A Distance

Terry Cavanagh. Download it from the official website.

Terry Cavanagh of VVVVVV fame released his new title this week, and it's about as far away from his retro-styled, gravity-flipping platformer as you could imagine.

You'll need two players on a local network to enjoy At A Distance, a puzzle game where the main puzzle is working out what's going on at all.

Both players start alone, in rooms of a coloured maze. And as both parties begin to explore, discussing their experiences with each other and watching the other person's screen, clues begin to emerge of how progress might be made.

It's a difficult game to describe - especially without spoiling its tricks - and impossible to recommend to anyone who doesn't have a dual-PC setup going on. But everyone else should sample what is a hugely interesting experiment in puzzle gaming. It sheds a whole new light on what teamwork means in computer games.

Traal

Jonathan Whiting, Alan Hazelden. Play it on the website.

A fascinating take on maze exploration and survival horror, Traal makes me curious to see what its developers, Jonathan Whiting and Alan Hazelden, could do with a more expansive, full-length game. You, a little green man, are lost in some sort of labyrinthine complex full of spike traps and beasties, and you're in search of a series of scrolls and special abilities. You also come armed with a torch. But in a neat twist, you don't attack the bad guys; you simply run away, panicked.

You can sneak past enemies by ensuring you don't shine your torch on them, leading to some interesting navigational puzzles that grow increasingly taxing as the game progresses. Illuminating a monster causes it to charge at you - and if you're in the vicinity of a trap, you might well run straight into it.

But many puzzles require you to get spotted - either as a way to disperse groups of enemies, or as a way to charge through the thinner walls that occasionally crop up. And the simplicity of the visual design still manages to bathe the game in a relentlessly tense atmosphere that gives Traal an extra edge.

Leave Cthulhu Alone

Loserville Games. Play it on Newgrounds.

It's as if a developer decided to take two overused tropes and throw them into the mix. It's asking for trouble to create yet another tower defence game and yet another creation based around Lovecraftian lore, surely. So why does Leave Cthulhu Alone work?

It works because it adds some neat twists to the formula that see you take a more hands-on approach to strategy than most examples of the genre, and because it's imbued with an air of silliness that produces regular smirks. Playing as Cthulhu himself, you work your way around several rooms, aiming to stop your intruders by possessing, mutating and otherwise malfunctioning them until the whole area is cleared of bad guys.

Basic, but also engaging and delightfully ridiculous at times, it's one of the better free tower defence games I've played recently, and certainly the only one to feature a wry and cynical Cthulhu as the main character. That's got to be worth something, right?

Hyperbolic Rogue

Z. Download it from the dev's website.

There's nothing too extraordinary about the workings of Hyperbolic Rogue. As with most examples of the genre, it's a turn-based crawl around an environment, and a world in which death is permanent. Your only goal is to collect as much money as you can before that inevitable happens, but doing so attracts enemies. The yeti is smart and charts the quickest path towards you, while ice wolves are excellent at tracking heat sources, so they'll know when you've been lingering in an area for some time.

The twist to these simple mechanics is that the game takes place on a hyperbolic plane, which is a geometrical concept that's a little too complex for a mere games journalist to concisely explain, so I'll just link you to this Wikipedia page. In practice, though, it means you're playing through something resembling a fish-eye lens, obscuring all but the closest areas to you.

It's basic, but decent fun, especially if you get stuck into chasing the financial high-scores.

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