January is usually a slow month for the games industry. The festive rush has finished, and few publishers want to take a risk on unleashing their big game when there's no opportunity for someone to buy it as a present. Fortunately, those making games for no financial reimbursement - or, at least, games whose money-making prowess doesn't equate to the need to shift a full-priced boxed product - don't have this to worry about. Maybe that's why January has seen some of the best free games to grace the PC in ages. Read on for our picks...
Da-Da-Dash DX Edition
By Renard. Download it from the official website .
This is a maddeningly fast game. The premise: grab a selection of different jewels from around a grid, while avoiding the bullets and laser beams of an enormous monster which sits atop the screen.
There's a 'normal' mode, which makes things relatively restrained, but frankly that isn't a lot of fun. It's in the game's 'accelerated' mode that things really come into their own. You move your miniature spacecraft around the grid by clicking on your destination and seeing the little fella zip right there, which means there's no real opportunity for edging carefully around the hail of fire heading in your direction. This means 'accelerated' mode becomes a frantic dash around the screen, as you desperately hope you've managed to dodge the bad guy's latest spray of hot death. A whole heap of fun.
By SantaRagione. Play it on Kongregate .
Fotonica is a splendid one-button game that takes a fair few cues from the likes of Mirror's Edge and Canabalt. Your task is to run like the bloomin' wind along a track, but the only control you're blessed with is when to jump. Hold down any button to power up a leap, and release it to go flying through the air - and, hopefully, land where you're expecting.
It isn't a new idea, by any means. These simplified free-running games have been all the rage in recent months. This one is particularly noticeable for its visual design, though, Fotonica throwing hyperactive wireframes in your direction which add a whole new dimension of adrenaline in your direction. The sense of speed is enormous, and the entire thing remains just about distinctive enough to hold your attention - even through a couple of odd difficulty spikes.
The Dream Machine - Chapter 1
By Cockroach. Play it on the official website .
The name unfortunately gives away what this astonishingly crafted point-and-click adventure is all about. After moving to a new house, your character and his wife stumble across a big machine that allows you to enter people's dreams. Unfortunately this doesn't happen until Chapter 2, which you have to pay for - as you will all subsequent episodes. (And yes, this does make Chapter 1 a bit more akin to a demo, but it's called a chapter, so I feel no guilt for shoehorning it into this list.)
Chapter 1 is remarkable for its own reasons, though. For starters, it's all hand-crafted and animated. The sets are real, physical sets, and the characters are made of clay. It's a really impressive piece of work from its indie developers - even more so when you realise it's actually quite good, with sensible puzzles, strong dialogue, and a refreshingly understated opening that really draws you into its world.
By RottenTater. Get it from the official website .
As sinister as you can imagine, SuteF has been stirring up a few reactions in the last month. It's a puzzle platformer in the style of - say - VVVVVV, but comes equipped with a bunch of new ideas, as well as a completely different vibe, that turn this unnerving creation into its own beast.
You've got to avoid death and get to the TV screens, essentially. But various obstacles stand in your way, and you have a selection of abilities to help you overcome them. The puzzles are smart, cerebral, often devilishly difficult but always sensible. And the thematics are wonderful: delightfully twisted in a way that sticks you to the edge of your seat as you dare to imagine what might come next. Both surreal in spirit and solid in design, SuteF is only marred by an apparent inability to quit the bloody thing in any way other than bringing up the task manager. Seriously ?
Goblin War Machine
By Big Block Games. Play it on the website .
There was a game released on Xbox Live Arcade in the summer. It was called Limbo, and it was really very good. You should go and play it on your friend's console toy, or something. But if you can't bring yourself to do that, you can get a fairly good idea of its aesthetic design by playing Goblin War Machine, a game that seems to have been fairly obviously influenced by Playdead's quirky puzzle-platformer.
Of course, actually play the thing and there are plenty of differences. Goblin War Machine is about constructing an enormous bike-o-tank and ploughing like hell through a bunch of tiny settlements. It's a lot of fun, too, especially as the game opens up: score points for kills, and you unlock new features with which to customise your machine of doom. The little guys with spears and the silhouetted greyscale are evocative of others' work, but it's through its delight in silliness that Goblin War Machine really shines.
By Cryptic Studios. Get it from the official website .
We seem to be being treated to quite a few online games going free. It's not that many months since Relic's extraordinary RTS Company of Heroes threw away its need for up-front payments, and the excellent Lord of the Rings Online made the same move shortly after . We're soon to see an updated edition of APB, too, which is set to function on a microtransaction system. Although, to be fair, APB was rubbish . So maybe don't think about that one too much.
Still, it's an interesting new area for the games industry to explore, and the result is that we're seeing some decent games emerge into the free-to-play realms. Champions Online is a flawed but fun MMO that expands upon Cryptic's previous City of Heroes/Villains titles - a colourful, action-packed universe of superhero mayhem that does enough to keep you entertained for many hours on end.
The free version locks out a few subscriber-only features, but for all intents and purposes it's the same game, only without the monthly fee. If money were involved, Champions Online would be a cautious recommendation. But now that it isn't, go nuts.