The lights are on
PAX continues to be fertile ground for up and coming indie games. We've spent a good part of the weekend wandering through the Indie Megabooth, checking out the diamonds in the rough tucked away in odd corners, and poking around bigger booths showcasing smaller games.
We'll be bringing you the indie titles that stand out to us as games you should keep your eye on (or run out and get now). With PAX East 2016 now over, our rundown of stand-out indies from the show is now complete.
HeadlanderDeveloper: Double FinePlatforms: PS4, PCRelease Window: Summer 2016
Double Fine is hoping to get ahead with its next game by teaming up with Adult Swim Games. In Headlander, humanity is practically extinct and robots rule the universe.
You wake up after many years of hibernation to find that the world is not how you left it and your body has been misplaced. You’re just a head in a helmet, but thankfully there is an army of automata willing to loan you a body.
In order to progress through the levels, players will need to solve puzzles and vacuum the heads off enemy robots. After taking care of that, you can safely land on a robot’s shoulders and adopt any powers that it was using.
The opening level is well written, offering up genuine smiles. The art style is based heavily on 1970s science fiction, including nods to Logan’s Run, Rollerball, and more.
The puzzles in the demo were enjoyable to solve, and the concept of flying around as a jet-propelled head in order to find a robo-body to commandeer is smartly implemented. The preview left me wanting more, and I won’t have long to wait before Headlander’s summer release on PS4 and PC.
RefactorDeveloper: Next Gen PantsPlatforms: PS4, PCRelease Window: Early 2017
The pitch on Refactor is a tough to visualize, but bear with me. You play as a defective tetromino (the official name of four-block configurations from games like Tetris) that lives inside a "classic" puzzle game called Refactor.
Because of your imperfect construction, you're slated for recycling within the game. You and other defective blocks manage to escape, and you're on a quest of survival in what amounts to a Tron-like world within the program.
Now, here's where it gets a little wacky. Refactor is described as a "tetroidvania." You'll pick up powers required to access new parts of the world like in Metroid-style games, but where Refactor differentiates itself is in how it handles navigation across the game.
Each of the rooms exists within a larger tetromino, and you can move them around in control rooms, connecting them in different configurations to reach objectives. Rooms you have previously traversed will be rotated and connect to different locations. The effect yields a bit of user agency in a genre that typically features robust, but static maps.
Next Gen Pants is working to ensure that any configuration that could work can be traversed at the point in time in which it is created. The way this works is that you can only move tetrominos around if you've been inside them. This prevents you from frustrating yourself with dead ends of your own creation.
The movement in Refactor is surprisingly fluid for a tumbling square. Jumping is forgiving, with the game erring on the player's side. It could have all crumbled in this area, but Next Gen Pants has forgone the logic of physics in some cases in favor of playability.
The divergent elements featured in this game, including battles with hulking bosses, environmental hazards, and smaller enemies that pepper the paths, come together in a way that I wouldn't have guessed would gel at all with a Tetris-meets-Portal motif. This is one of those times that the premise is so strange it's intriguing, and execution proves out developer creativity.
Tooth and TailDeveloper: Pocketwatch GamesPlatforms: PC, Mac, Linux (Consoles TBA)Release Window: 2016
Real-time strategies have had a rocky history with gamepads. With the exception of Halo Wars, which was designed with the Xbox 360 controller in mind, there have been precious few games in the genre that work at all for couch gaming.
You can’t maximize your APM and trigger a zerg rush with a controller. It’s difficult to wage total war with a pair of thumbsticks, triggers, and face buttons. And if you’re looking for a quick pick-up RTS match, you’re likely out of luck. Games can take quite a while to play from start to finish.
Monaco developer Pocketwatch Games hopes to remedy the genre’s shortcomings on PC (and likely console) with the quick-playing, gamepad friendly Tooth and Tail. Modeled after the Russian revolution, the animal kingdom is starving due to food being routed to the front line of a protracted war. The only option left is to eat other animals.
Battles play out on relatively small, procedurally generated maps. Starting locations are randomized, so there is no way to have a leg up by knowing the battlefield through repeat play. You can bring a number of unit types into battle, but you’ll have to make tough choices as there are a limited number of slots.
The cleverness is in the control system. Building farms and unit-generating structures is handled with a single button press. Selecting from your unit structure deck is handled with the directional pad.
Rallying your units to your location is handled with the right trigger, and they’ll follow until you let it go. At that point, they’ll start attacking enemy structures and units. Because Tooth and Tail matches are designed for quick play, Pocketwatch Games is able to strip out some of the more complex execution typically found in the RTS genre.
That’s not to say there isn’t a strong tactical bent here. Knowing when to scout the area with your commander in order to find out what your opponent is planning is crucial. Otherwise, you could be caught with the wrong units (and a future as the opposing team’s next meal).
Matches play extremely fast, with mine lasting approximately five minutes. The brisk pacing that skips the more laborious early resource gathering and base building pushes players into combat quickly. The result is that people may be much more inclined to squeeze in that “one more match” instead of flipping a table after an hour-long battle that ends in a loss.
When it launches later this year, Tooth and Tail will support one-vs-one and two-vs-two matches. You’ll be able to use a combination of split-screen and online to assemble your friends and foes. The speedy matches and streamlined control system captured my interest, and my defeat at the hands of a friend has sparked my desire for revenge.
WastedDeveloper: Mr. PodunkianPlatforms: PCRelease Window: Summer 2016
Imagine a post-apocalyptic world in which the most important resource is booze that will mutate you. In space. That’s Wasted, a first-person shooter roguelike with a couple of different modes that differentiate it from the vast sea of roguish things.
Now, imagine your opponents look like smiling Fallout Vault Boys and you have to shoot them in the crotch for maximum damage. Junk food heals you, but it’ll put you in a food coma in which you walk slowly for a few seconds.
A good sense of humor can elevate a routine concept, and Wasted’s space-drunkard premise and “so adorable, I could just shoot you in the bad place” aesthetic help set it apart. The mode I played is called Courier Run, in which you have to traverse a spaceship to deliver the all-important alcohol.
Along the way, you’ll encounter enemies that will attack you and each other. There’s a definitive end-point to this mode, which wraps when you reach the goal deep in the space ship.
Wasted will also ship with a campaign mode, though developer Mr. Podunkian and publisher Adult Swim aren’t talking much about it yet. We’ll certainly know for sure by this summer when the game launches on PC.
Katana ZeroDeveloper: AskiisoftPlatforms: PCRelease Window: 2017
I’m a sucker for stylish 2D sword combat. I love Tomasz Waclawek’s Ronin, and Klei’s Mark of the Ninja. The latest to catch my eye is Askiisoft’s Katana Zero.
Where Ronin blends ninja action with turn-based combat and Klei with stealth, Askiisoft is going in a decidedly different direction. Katana Zero has an evolving narrative that mirrors how Telltale approaches storytelling.
Branching conversations will impact how characters treat you down the road. Depending on how you speak to them, you could have an ally at a crucial time or find yourself sword-to-sword with a former comrade.
The premise of combat is that you can predict the future, so moving through each level is narratively explained as “planning” how you will clear a room. Fail and you’ll quickly start over as you “decide” that your plan wouldn’t work. Complete the room and you get a replay of your “plan” put into practice.
It’s one-hit kills all the way around, and you can reflect bullets back at foes. You can also use environmental hazards to kill your foes. Wiping out a trio of gun-toting baddies by flipping a laser wall switch at the right time felt great.
There’s much more to Katana Zero that we don’t know yet. The narrative design’s implications for the game sound impactful, but we’ll need to dive into it for ourselves to learn just how much agency we’ll have. The combat is flashy and fun, promoting trial and error with quick reloads.
We’ve got our eye on this one. With a 2017 release planned, we expect we’ll see more before too long.
Keep reading for more great indies featured at PAX East 2016.