I spent my first day at the Electronic Entertainment Expo playing or watching demos for several games in their alpha or beta builds including promising indie titles. First up was a trio of games published and/or developed by Deck 13, a 45-person operation in Frankfurt, Germany, that has partnered with companies in Europe and the U.S. Jan Klose, the company's creative director, co-founder and CEO, walked me through each game.


Crosscode is a retro action RPG game releasing in early 2016 (perhaps February). The retro design style features an angled isometric perspective and 16-bit SNES-style graphics. The narrative is handled through exposition that takes place in the foreground during characters' conversations. The exchanges between the stylized characters at times is emotional and appears to provide a solid foundation for the action.

Progression through the world appears linear, though there are opportunities to explore and discover hidden objects. In addition, there is an explore mode for those who prefer a more wide open experience. While venturing forth, enemies will be encountered in arena-style combat, requiring defensive tactics such as a dodge maneuver and offensive attacks including melee combat, a ranged projectile attack and an area effect move.


Art design is perfectly nostalgic while controls (I was able to use an Xbox controller) were responsive and effective. My only issues were familiarizing myself with a configuration that seemed to keep two-step actions on one side or the other of the controller, i.e. dodging involved holding a left trigger/bumper and moving the left stick while ranged attacks involved holding a right trigger/bumper and aiming with the right stick.

Level design was creative and appealing, whether a technical installation, village (to be populated with NPCs and shops) or countryside (see in the explore mode). My demo was limited but hinted at the entertainment possible with a larger world and more fleshed out RPG elements. The appealing old school veneer and fluid action, including puzzle elements such as attacking enemies in cover using ranged attacks and mirrors, was a promising window on the game's possibilities.

Crosscode is a multiplatform game that is now available for early access on Steam. It is the product of a partnership between developer Radical Fish Games and Deck13, which is handling some of the publishing.


Shift Happens is a co-op platforming game that features two endearing avatars, Bizmo and Plom, who must shift mass from one to the other to solve environmental puzzles that involve challenges such as traversing gaps or water and scaling heights. In the demo I played, most action involved one player picking up and tossing the other, or catching the other after they've leaped an expanse. Though challenges can be straightforward, precise timing is necessary to coordinate between the players.

The core mechanics of shifting mass; picking up, catching or tossing one's comrade; or reviving your companion after an untimely death (pun intended) were all well implemented -- the only issue we faced involving control was lag related to one of the controllers, possibly due to the build we were playing. But the concept was a creative one that was generally well implemented, though patience, skill and fortitude will be required to succeed past more than 50 levels across four worlds.


The side scrolling gameplay featured a simple but artful flair to the environments, and the animation of the avatars or the levels was fluid. Developed by Klonk Games and published by Deck13, Shift Happens is on its way to providing a fun co-op experience on multiple platforms when it releases around the end of the year. A solo campaign also will be available, including environments designed to allow gamers to switch between avatars while tackling challenges.


Black Sails -- The Ghost Ship is a classic point-and-click mystery adventure game that is best enjoyed in the dark with headphones on, according to developer Deck 13. It is somewhat similar to Telltale Games' successful formula, emphasizing multiple-choice options during conversations and the impact of decisions made as the story unfolds. 

The creepy experience follows two people, Anna and Lex, as they try to uncover the circumstances surrounding their current predicament, having survived a ship wreck at sea only to find refuge on a seemingly abandoned vessel. Character and emotion are key to the experience crafted by Deck 13.


The overall art design had a gothic feel to it based on the brief portion that I saw, with a dark, brooding atmosphere, muted color palette and stark surroundings. Cut scenes were artful and almost storyboard design in some instances. Dialog trees demonstrated the multiple options available to players. The only issue was very small type, which will be addressed.

This short story mystery with 3D levels contains four to six hours of gameplay and should release in July on Steam.


Next up was Cryptivo Games' The Universim, a planet-management god-game. The fledgling studio's first game, it has been funded by a Kickstarter campaign that has raised over $400,000 to date. As with similar games, evolution plays a role in the development of your civilizations.

Players can guide civilizations from the Stone Age through the Space Age. But what sets it apart is the opportunity that space travel allows, including discovering other different planets where the process can start over. Dynamically, randomly generated planets can vary in terms of plant life, wildlife and other characteristics.


In this way it is reminiscent of No Man's Land and its procedurally generated universe, but with the added gameplay opportunities that the god-game genre specializes in. I didn't demo the game but observed others as they managed their worlds from high above or near surface level.

The presentation is detailed and well designed whether viewed from a distance or close up. Animation such as people on the surface is fluid. I saw limited interaction with the world but controls did seem responsive and exact. The only hiccup was a stutter transitioning from a global to local view, but of course this is a pre-alpha build.

All things considered, the concept behind The Universim is definitely appealing and the execution, especially for a pre-alpha phase, seems very promising thus far.


Across the aisle was a young two-person studio with a very rough demo of their game Harmony of Dawn. What initially drew me to their booth was the highly stylized art and deep purple and black colors, but I was intrigued by the classical music inspiration behind this nonviolent adventure RPG.

The influence that orchestras had can be found in the level design, such as a waterfall level inspired by string instruments, and the main character's magical violin bow and spinnerete. These can shatter or break objects they are attached to by playing a chord (options are for a high- or low-pitch chord to be played). Objects can also be swung from or pulled.


Examples of the gameplay involved attaching to a giant acorn to pull it off a tree (whereupon another took its place), then pulling or pushing it into a well, where it immediately grew into a giant flower that the character could use to cross a wide expanse. Attaching to branches is also a common practice for swinging across the environment.

Controls were mostly intuitive, including aiming and launching a string, and the opportunity to raise or lower oneself when attached to a branch, as well as to swing prior to jumping to a ledge. Level design is decent. There were some issues with interactivity and sound, plus graphics and animation could improve, but of course this is an early build so these aren't unexpected.


The story involves main character Helena and the adversarial relationship between two fairy queens: Queen of Night Mab and Queen of Day Titania. Developer WITB Entertainment has uploaded a demo to Steam after the project was greenlit.


Several games were on display in Maximum Games' booth so I stopped by to discuss them and try one out. First on deck was the company's first title as a developer: Alekhine's Gun. The Cold War spy game takes place during the Kennedy administration as the main character, a Russian assassin, joins with the CIA to stop a neo-Nazi group from triggering war.

Stealth gameplay assumes prominence in this title and draws comparisons with the Hitman franchise. And while this game does offer a variety of options for achieving objectives and eliminating targets, you'll find no Silverballers in this title (Alekhine's Gun is actually a reference to a signature chess move).


There are guns, however, the game is designed for players to be more reliant on stealth and disguises. In fact, disguise selection is varied and important, and changing wardrobes is a necessary element. For instance, certain wardrobes are more common outside than in, and vice versa.

Likewise, while chefs or guards have access to many areas compared with other staff, lingering or being seen with the same deliverable (such as a poisoned wine bottle) for too long just might get you noticed.


Besides poison, there are other tools that aid the player in Alekhine's Gun, such as having an ear to the ground, which enables seeing guards' fields of vision (think MGS cones), being able to detect useful objects, and lockpicking.


Lichdom: Battlemage is likely my biggest surprise among those I've seen. The reason is that the role of mage is one I'm least likely to assume due to the relative complexity of alchemy and spell-casting (especially against foes aligned with certain elements). But this is not your typical RPG mage.

To begin with, there is no mana bar -- it's not necessary in a game with limitless spells and zero cool down. In fact, not only is spell-casting unrestrained, but there are thousands of spell combinations. In this way, action is more accessible, fluid and entertaining.

But this design choice is not a compromise that sacrifices traditional mage elements. The potential for myriad spell combinations means a deeper experience in that regard as well as a more unique character and gameplay experience each time through.

As the character levels up, the player can create new spells by mixing and matching thousands of others. This intricate spell system, which is all about customizing, is complemented by a straight forward combat mechanic.

Different sigils are mapped to controller face buttons. In the case of the Xbox control configuration, the top three buttons (X, Y, B) correspond to Fire, Corruption and Frost spells. During combat, the left trigger blocks, the right trigger casts a spell, and using both together creates an area of effect action that can target distant foes.

In my brief demo, I moved my character forward through a frozen cave, stopping to fight enemies such as sword wielding skeletons, other weapon-carrying creatures and mages. With spells mapped to the face buttons and basic actions to the triggers, combat is fast and furious. 

Controls are responsive so movement is easy and targeting is precise, even when my unfamiliarity with the configuration put me in precarious situations. Used in combination, the attacks are especially effective. For example, freezing a foe then using a fire spell can dispatch close enemies while an area of effect attack can eliminate foes attacking at range.

The presentation is on par with the excellent combat, showcasing detailed textures, smooth animation, impressive particle effects and quality art design. Gamers should be able to experience Xaviant's Lichdom: Battlemage sometime in the fourth quarter this year on multiple platforms.


Finally, I watched a demo of Creative Assembly's Total War: WARHAMMER, a new hybrid game combining the strategic depth and epic scale of the Total War series with the rich high-fantasy world of the WARHAMMER franchise. And I have to say, the combination of the two is really impressive.

Total War is known for the historic context of its games, but this entry allows the studio to throw off the shackles of reality. Besides armies of men, battles now can involve dragons, griffins, war machines, giants, wizards and shamans, to name a few.

The pre-alpha build on display showed off in stunning detail the huge variety and diversity of units on the battlefield. The battle pitted human soldiers against green skins, i.e. orcs, trolls and goblins. Combatants included spider riders, giant spiders, orc shamans and doom divers.

Combat included griffin air-to-air and air-to-ground fighting, caustic troll projectile vomiting, a man-eating giant and an orc shaman summoning a god to stomp foes into the ground. Fighting was dynamic, the camera impressive, animation fluid, particle effects well done, sound exceptional and graphics detailed.

For an alpha build, Total War: WARHAMMER made quite an impression. Given the different races and unit types, and how empire building is designed to be different for each class, the game is made to offer a different experience every time. To judge by the promising demo, Creative Assembly and publisher SEGA are well on their way to a successful launch.