[Day One]

Metronomicon
Developer: Puuba
Platform: PC
Release Window: Holiday 2016

Metronomicon combines the rhythm joy of Final Fantasy Theatrhythm with Rock Band's note highways and traditional fantasy character templates. Puuba's strange brew of these ingredients results in a fast-paced and strategic RPG experience that requires players keep the beat and quickly tap in Dance Dance Revolution-style directional inputs.

In the thumping world that Puuba has created, mysterious dance parties have been popping up throughout the world for the past 40 years. Monsters, which love to dance, are drawn to them, wreaking havoc along the way. 

To combat the beastly incursion, humans have learned to harness the power of music to cast spells. These members of the Neon Shield academy have been searching for the explanation for the musical cataclysm.

During gameplay, you'll take four party members into combat. Each can be customized with different musical abilities, including attacks, party buffs, traditional magic spells that create elemental effects, and curative abilities. 

In order to attack, you'll need to use the bumpers to tab among the party, hit beats, and charge up powers. You can continue to play notes on a track to power up the next tier skill. For instance, playing through one musical phrase might trigger the warrior's attack. Continuing through a second phrase might enable a rally cry that buffs the team. This adds a strategic layer to the combat, as does elemental enemies that can make you color blind or dizzy you so notes waver as they come down the track.

Puuba is still polishing the UI, but the game is 70 percent of the way through its first pass. There will be 50 songs, side quests, item drops, and a Tavern Brawl-style arena that offers up challenging and unconventional conditions with comensurate rewards. It'll be out later this year.

I Expect You To Die
Developer: Schell Games
Platform: Rift, Vive
Release Window: Second Half 2016

When we wrote our January 2016 issue on The Year of VR, Schell Games' I Expect You To Die was a standout title. The James Bond-style deathtraps, Rube Goldberg murder machines, and clever sense of humor captured my imagination.

When I last played I Expect You To Die, I was trapped in a car in a plane with the goal of driving it out in mid-air. Poison gas, bombs, and lasers stood between me and victory.

In the latest demo, taking place in a lodge hiding a world-ending machine, I encountered hidden compartments, killer death rays, and a bear that shoots dynamite-strapped arrows. The puzzle was intuitive and amusing, inspiring trial and error. Schell Games does expect you to die, but with each attempt you'll learn something new. 

Since I last experienced I Expect You To Die, Schell Games has added a telekenisis mechanic. Instead of having to contort yourself or turn around (which may obfuscate the way the Oculus Touch controllers are read by the camera), your agent now has the ability to grab items around the room. This is a much better solution to Oculus' not-quite-room-scale VR problem that makes I Expect You To Die far more intuitive.

For those that enjoy escape rooms or titles like Zero Escape, I Expect You To Die is the next evolution of the concept. And I'm eager to puzzle my way through when it arrives later this year.

Orion Trail
Developer: Schell Games
Platform: PC, Gear VR
Release Window: Out Now

Way back in elementary school, I delighted in our weekly computer class that put us in front of Apple IIe computers. In addition to Math Blasters and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, The Oregon Trail kept my friends and I busy. 

The journey out west was hard. Famine, broken wagon wheels, and dysentery were more than mere obstacles. They were the death of our digital families.

Schell Games has taken that same concept into space with Orion Trail. You'll field a crew to journey to Orion, facing conflict along the way. You'll need to use your crew's diplomacy, tactics, combat, and Kirk-like swagger to tackle the different challenges you'll encounter.

You'll also be able to send down away teams with red shirts that exist merely to die on your behalf. Succeed in your missions and you'll scavenge enough food, fuel, and hull integrity to make it to Orion. Fail and everyone dies. Terribly.

RYB
Developer: Fleb
Platform: iOS
Release Window: Out Now

I grew up on logic puzzles. I've fallen in love with Picross. And I can't seem to get enough of games that make me stop, think, and even use pen and paper in the process of reaching a solution.

Paul Hlebowitsh is a master puzzler, who is listed among the best Sudoku savants in the country. His take on the logic puzzle genre tasks players with properly coloring assortments of geometric configurations. The trick is using the colored dots inside the segments to determine the shades of the pieces surrounding them. 

It's a straightforward concept with infinite possibility for complexity as shape configurations get more complex as you progress. The presentation is elegant in its simplicity, and the use of primary colors is both vibrant and approachable.

You can download RYB now on the iOS App Store.

We Happy Few
Developer: Compulsion Games
Platform: Xbox One, PC
Release Window: Mid-2016 (Early Access / Xbox Game Preview)

It was one year ago at PAX East that I had the chance to play an extremely early version of Compulsion's We Happy Few. In the intervening 12 months, the game has undergone enormous refinement.

In We Happy Few, your goal is to escape Wellington Wells, a drug-addled community that doesn't take kindly to those it deems to be "downers." Instead of a simple sandbox, there are now a number of procedurally generated areas. 

After leaving the safe room, I found myself in a ruined area populated by other downers that went off their Joy meds. They contrast between the pristine, shiny streets of the downtown area filled with mask-wearing residents and the desparation of the downer-inhabited ruins immediately deepens the narrative impact.

A crafting system lets players build traps, lockpicks, healing items, and more. There is a more palpable progression in place, as players must acquire clothing and items that help them avoid suspicion even when off their Joy.

The goal of the game when it hits early access later this year will simply be to escape Wellington Wells. The map is procedurally generated each time, with another layer of procedural generation crafting the distinct regions across the settlement.

Before the game goes final, Compulsion will be adding a more concrete narrative. You'll be able to meet characters with their own needs and desires and take on side-quests for them (thereby unlocking those NPCs for play in future sessions). 

We Happy Few is no longer simply a roguelike survival game with a different aesthetic and premise. It's headed toward a blend of genres pulling from sandbox games, larger open-world RPGs, and stylized first-person narrative-rich games like BioShock.

Thimbleweed Park
Developer: Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick
Platform: PC
Release Window: Late 2016 / Early 2017

Thimbleweed Park is a throwback to my childhood. I grew up on adventure games using the Verb System, as I picked up, talked to, and used assortments of objects to complete obtuse and amusing puzzles. 

After a successful Kickstarter in December 2014, the masters and pioneers of the genre, Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, have returned. Thimbleweed Park looks as if it were developed alongside Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island. The art style is a pixel-perfect approach to the games that filled my after-school and weekend hours in the 80s.

In the brief demo, it's clear Gilbert and Winnick haven't lost their sense of humor or puzzle design. Two at-odds FBI agents, a cantankerous clown, and a gypsy curse gave me a quick snapshot of the game that was enough to make me want to dive back into my LucasArts back catalog and relive my youth.

However, Gilbert told me that the duo have learned much since the early days of adventure gaming. While Thimbleweed Park captures the nostalgia of those games, it sheds some of the design decisions of yore that created frustration instead of glee.

For instance, you won't be ping-ponging across the game's playable area to fetch items. Gilbert says those choices were great for extending gameplay but were ultimately boring as players spent most of the time walking from location to location.

There will also be replay value in Thimbleweed Park. A regular mode will cut some of the puzzles as a way to welcome players new to the Verb System. Playing again on hard mode will give those coming back for a second trip more to do.

With a corny and infectious sense of humor that perfectly captures what I loved about these games in their heyday, I'm eager to play the full version when it's out later this year or early in 2017.

 

Check back with us throughout the weekend for more stand-out indies.