Your Guide To PAX East 2015's Amazing Indies

by Mike Futter on Mar 08, 2015 at 05:57 PM

I'm not ashamed to borrow a good idea from my colleagues. If you haven't yet perused the wonderful compilation of GDC's very best indie games, Matt Bertz, Tim Turi, Jeff Cork, and Kimberley Wallace checked out a number of gems in San Francisco. Now, I'm bringing you some additions from the east coast.

I'm out at PAX East, one of the many homes of the roving Indie Megabooth. We're spending time checking in with the latest and greatest, and we'll be updating throughout PAX East.

Developer: c3sk
Platform: PC
Release: 2015

Developer Chris Eskins began his work on Noct as a zombie game for his friends to play. It evolved away from the undead toward something far more sinister.

Noct pits players in a fight for survival at the end of the world as we know it. Enormous Lovecraftian monsters have overtaken the surface, and you and your fellow survivors must scavenge for weapons and gear to beat back the horde.

The entire game is played from an overhead perspective as if you were looking down from a thermal imaging satellite. This means the entire game is monochrome with varied lighting.

Eskins spent time looking at thermal satellite photography to get the effects right, including how things look under tree cover. The effect is something eerie and alien.

Noct allows players to open their servers to other survivors. Essentially creating a huge cooperative environment. If your character dies though, the server is terminated until it's start anew. 

There is no meta progression beyond the story, similar to a game like Day Z. Instead, players push the narrative forward by completing objectives. This is certainly one to play with the lights off, especially with a soundtrack created by Portugeuse dark ambient music composer Wordclock.

Enter the Gungeon
Developer: Dodge Roll
Platform: PS4, PC
Release: Q3 2015

A quick glance at Enter the Gungeon might lead you to believe that it's a simple, 2D roguelite with procedural elements. While it brings with it characteristics of Binding of Isaac, Enter the Gungeon is a brilliant application of the roguelite elements that have become so common.

Most impressive is that Dodge Roll's first title is actually a 3D game. The team of former EA developers has simply locked the camera in place and forced movement on a pixel grid.

The result is the benefit of 3D lighting and implied sense of depth without sacrificing the aesthetic. Enter the Gungeon also benefits from a modified approach to procedural generation.

Dodge Roll has created a sytem that produces "Zelda-like" dungeons. Studio founder Dave Crooks says that the goal is to get maps to loop around logically, minimizing random dead ends and odd procedural construction. Part of the success in this comes from building the rooms by hand, but letting the AI place them systematically.

The studio has also created its own approach to meta-progression. Players won't carry skills between runs in the Gungeon. Rather, accomplishing goals will add more items and guns to the loot table. Currently there are about 200 guns in the game and over 100 different items.

Enter the Gungeon also features a Demon's Souls-like nexus. There, you can meet NPCs, take on additional challenges, and advance the story.

One example Crooks offered is having to choose between protecting a salesman from a prohibition officer's sweep or turning him in. The decision leads to different story branches and elements of the game available to the player.

The title is full of referential humor and absurd enemies. Even if roguelikes aren't your thing, this is one to keep an eye on.

Developer: Tomasz Waclawek
Platform: PC
Release: 2015

If I had to pick a favorite among the games I played on the first day of PAX, it would be Ronin. Players take on the role of a young woman hellbent on revenge. While the exact reasons for her vendetta aren't yet clear, she executes her mission (and her victims) with style.

In each of the levels we played, the heroine must infiltrate buildings, steal data, and eliminate any security forces that get in her way. While this might sound a bit like Mark of the Ninja or Roll7's Not a Hero, Ronin does things its own way.

Players can jump, grab onto walls and ceilings, and swing on a rope dart to change directions mid-fall. These things must be used in tandem to break through windows to get the jump on foes.

Once you've engaged the enemies, battle becomes a turn-based affair. This feels extremely slick and seamless. You'll have to plot your jumps, sword throws, and decoy devices around the laser sights of your foes.

Jumping into enemies knocks them over and can send them flying out a window or into another foe. Once down, a turn count appears to let you know when they'll regain their composure.

There's quite a bit of trial and error, but the situational puzzles that pop up in combat are great fun to work through. Keep Ronin in your sights.

Crystal Brawl
Developer: Studio Mercato
Platform: PC
Release: TBD

Towerfall and Samurai Gunn touched off a wave of arena multiplayer games. I've played a number, and Crystal Brawl stands out as one of the best.

Two teams of two square off on one of five maps to retrieve a single ball and run it into their scoring zone. What makes things challenging is that players choose from one of four traditional fantasy classes: archer, wizard, fighter, rogue.

Each class commands two different abilities. For instance, the wizard can freeze enemies and the fighter can dash or pound the ground for an area of effect attack. If players are hit while carrying the ball, they drop it.

Terrain management is also a big part of the strategy. The rogue can plant trees, which are slower to traverse. These can be frozen by the wizard and subsequently smashed or burned with one of the archer's abilities.

Games are fast-paced, with control of the ball changing frequently. This is the kind of game that ruins friendships or, at the very least, inspires spirited trash talk.

Moon Hunters
Developer: Kitfox
Platform: PC, PS4, Vita
Release: 2015

Moon Hunters is a Kickstarter-funded game that tasks one to four players with cooperatively building a culture's mythology. At the outset of a single three-hour play, the moon (this Mesopotamian culture's object of worship) has gone missing and a band of warriors sets out in search of it.

Along the way, they will be faced with decisions. When one of these moments arises, the players vote on outcome, which in turn earns the party a trait.

Battles are played out in traditional action RPG style with hacking, slashing, and a variety of spells. At the end of your run, players will be immortalized as a constellation, the heroes become part of mythology, and new heroes pick up the quest.

There is still work to be done on Moon Hunters, but the voting mechanic and the collaborative decision making aspects are intriguing. As for its appearance on Vita, that platfrom is in great need of action RPGs, as it's well suited for them.

Just Shapes & Beats
Developer: Berzerk Studio
Platform: PC
Release: TBD

Developer Berzerk Studio calls Just Shapes & Beats a "space avoider." I call it bullet hell without shooting. You and up to three friends take on the roles of four differently colored shapes and simply try to survive until the end of the music track.

Getting hit removes a slice from your shape, and should you lose the last one, you'll need a teammate to revive you. If you don't happen to get rescued before you drift off the left side of the screen, you're done.

You aren't without tricks, though. You can dash around the screen to avoid the hazards in the rapidly crowding environment.

Just Shapes & Beats wouldn't be nearly as much fun if it weren't for the multiplayer. The music is great and the clever boss battle (no checkpoints, but extra hits before being knocked out) is challenging, but approaching this kind of title as a team effort sells it.

When Berzerk is ready to release the title, get your Towerfall group together and pop this on. You might not get very far thanks to the difficulty, but you'll have fun not getting there.

Steamworld Heist
Developer: Image & Form
Platform: Xbox One, PS4, Wii U, PC
Release: July 2015 (PS4 and PC), TBD (Xbox One, Wii U)

Steamworld Heist is the follow-up to 2013's Steamworld Dig. And if you played that title, you might think the sequel is going to follow closely in its footsteps. Instead, Image & Form is completely changing format, putting the focus on a new set of characters and brand new play style.

Steamworld Dig follows in Metroid's footsteps, with emphasis on exploration tied to abilities. Players dig into the earth to uncover new abilities and accomplish goals to grow the town.

Heist isn't an exploration title like Dig. Instead, players take on the role of Captain Piper, a space pirate, and her crew. Gameplay is entirely turn-based as Piper and her allies raid ships for supplies and fight enemies with firearms.

Grabbing cover, smartly positioning Piper and her allies, and firing skill shots that ricochet off walls are all important tricks for surviving. Additionally, you can shoot the hats from enemies' heads.

In Steamworld, hats carry enormous religious significance. Collecting one shot off a live enemy's head allows you to equip it later for bonuses. This adds a persistent objective to the combat that elevates it beyond the "kill or be killed" rut it could have otherwise fallen into.

Image & Form CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson tells us his studio is already conceptualizing a third Steamworld title that will bridge the stories told in Dig and Heist. We don't expect to hear much more about the third title until well after Heist ships. Thankfully, this upcoming release captures Dig's charm and offers up an engaging tactical experience.

Four Sided Fantasy
Developer: Ludo Land
Platform: Xbox One, PS4, PS3, Wii U, Vita, PC
Release: Early 2016

Successful game design is, in part, leveraging players' accumulated knowledge as a stepping stone to imparting title-specific mechanics. Ludo Land's Four Sided Fantasy takes everything you know about how games work and snaps it in half.

The title gives players the power to freeze the screen in place. While active, the laws of gaming are tossed out the window and the protagonist can loop the screen. This means that walking off the right side causes the small character to reappear on the left. 

Smart use of the freeze screen is required in order to progress through otherwise solid walls and reach otherwise unattainable heights. Along the way, you'll encounter static zones in which your ability is muted. Finding colored collectibles unlocks those areas allowing progression.

Four Sided Fantasy was a delightfully challenging experience, and one I'm looking forward to revisiting up on its release next year.

The Swindle
Developer: Dan Marshall
Platform: Xbox One, PS4, PS3, Wii U, Vita, PC
Release: 2015

You've probably gotten used to hearing the word "procedural" quite a lot. Most of the time though, it's associated with survival games like Don't Starve or roguelites like Binding of Isaac. The Swindle does something a bit different, though you'll still find yourself dying quite a bit.

The Swindle tasks you with infiltrating newly generated buildings to loot cash and get out as quietly and quickly as possible. Unlike many stealth games though, you still stand a chance if detected. Security shutters slam down (don't worry, they can be hacked), guards are on high alert, and money starts draining from the safes.

At any time, you can make your way back to the starting point, return to the airship, and upgrade your abilities. These include bombs, remote detonators for mines placed around the buildings, double and triple jumps, and more.

Should you die, a new thief is dropped into a fresh setting with all of the upgrades. With one-hit kills, that's going to happen often. 

The Swindle is a more strategic take on the current procedural death dungeon fad. It's also one, we're looking forward to seeing more of.

Developer: Drinkbox
Platforms: Vita
Release: 2015

When I first saw the trailer for Severed during PlayStation Experience, I was instantly skeptical of the touch screen controls on display. After playing Drinkbox's upcoming Vita title, I've changed my tune.

Severed tells the story of Sasha, a young woman whose family has undergone some trauma. She wakes in a desolate world, her arm missing and strange creatures all around.

She is given a sword, though through a narrative moment in the tutorial we find out that she knows how to wield it already. What follows is a first-person dark journey through a twisted version of Guacamelee's art style.

The gameplay features a combination of thumbstick control for navigation and touch inputs for combat. When Sasha encounters enemies, she is often surrounded, meaning that players will need to watch timing meters at the bottom to know when to interrupt enemy attacks.

The tale will unfold throughout the adventure, and Drinkbox is remaining tight-lipped to preserve the mystery. I'm ready to jump back in and uncover Severed's mystery later this year. You can watch the full demo from PlayStation Experience for more.

Mayan Death Robots
Developer: Sileni Studios
Platform: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Release: August (PC and one console), TBD (other console)

Way back in the 1990s, I had a now-ancient 386 PC. Hidden in Windows 3.1 was a little game called Gorillas. It featured two large apes throwing explosive bananas at one another.

It cemented my love for titles like Scorched Earth, Gunbound, and Worms. Mayan Death Robots reaches deep into my memory and yanks those great memories to the forefront.

Two players vie for domination by choosing a heavily armed Mayan god to destroy the opponent's core. This is handled via simultaneous turns during which players can choose one of two primary weapons, jumping, or (if available) rebuilding terrain with tetrominos to shield their core.

Every eighth turn, a wheel spins and awards both players a single-use power. These include heavy explosives and the amusingly frustrating block rocket that encloses opponents in terrain (and likely causes them to inflict splash damage on themselves).

You can destroy an opposing god, but that doesn't end the game. It just knocks them out for the next turn. Depleting the core's health (or blowing up the terrain underneath and dropping it into the abyss) leads to victory. I suspect that after playing it you'll be more than willing to accept a rematch (and trash talk your friends).

Developer: Renegade Kid
Platform: PS4, Vita, 3DS, PC
Release: 3DS and PC (Out Now), PS4 and Vita (April 2015)

Renegade Kid has a particular style that makes its pixelated titles stand out amongst a crowd of blocky diversions. The Mutant Mudds' developer is getting ready to release his homage to Metroid on two more platforms, putting it within reach of even more players.

Xeodrifter's setup is straightforward. Your ship is hit by an asteroid and you need to repair it. You can scavange parts from four planets, but exploring them will require upgrades. 

On the first planet, I fought a large monster that retreated to his aquatic habitat in the background to munch on fish and regain health. Defeating him awards a submarine that allows you to loop back to the start of the level and teleport out (further exploration isn't possible yet). However, had I continued, I would have had the means to begin exploring the aquatic planet next.

Because of Watsham's art style, Xeodrifter plucks all the nostalgic notes. It recaptures the feelings I had explroing Metroid's alien world all those years ago, and I'm eager to explore Renegade Kid's take on the genre in depth.