pax east 2016

Fifteen Stand-Out Indies Of PAX East 2016 [Day Three]

by Mike Futter on Apr 25, 2016 at 11:35 AM

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.

[Day Three]

Headlander
Developer: Double Fine
Platforms: PS4, PC
Release 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.

Refactor
Developer: Next Gen Pants
Platforms: PS4, PC
Release 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 Tail
Developer: Pocketwatch Games
Platforms: 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.

Wasted
Developer: Mr. Podunkian
Platforms: PC
Release 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 Zero
Developer: Askiisoft
Platforms: PC
Release 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.

[Day Two]

Tokyo 42
Developer: Smac Games
Platform: PC
Release Window: Early 2017

At GDC, we got an early look at a game called Tokyo 42 that takes its inspiration from a number of fantastic titles. It's got the fast-paced, trial-and-error combat of Hotline Miami, the cat-and-mouse PvP of Assassin's Creed multiplayer, and an aesthetic that evokes bits of Shadowrun and The Fifth Element.

The two-brother team known as Smac Games isn't going it alone on their first title. The duo are partnered with Frozen Synapse developer Mode7 Games, which is funding the title and providing creative consulting, PR, and marketing support. The result is a broad, ambitious project with support from a studio that is no stranger to innovation.

Tokyo 42's premise puts you in the shoes of someone framed for murder. The only way to find out who set you up is to become an assassin. No, committing murder to clear your name of murder doesn't make sense. It doesn't matter though, because Tokyo 42 is a blast to play.

The opening missions teach you how to traverse the blocky environment, eliminate targets at short range, and pick them off from long distance with a sniper rifle. Once you've got the basics down, Tokyo 42's Hotline Miami influence starts to show.

Instead of the tight corridors and small rooms of Dennaton Games' murder-filled romp, Tokyo 42 takes the same frenetic feel and places it in a more open environment. The result is an experience that prioritizes cover and more methodical movement over the fast-placed blitz that Hotline Miami offers.

Tokyo 42 will feature an open world, with gang-controlled territory and a winding plot that ultimate reveals why you've been framed. It also will include a player-vs-player mode in which you and a friend will stalk one another, change disguises, blend in, and sweep in for the kill.

For a first endeavor, Smac Games has found a blend of experiences that are meshing well together. It's too early to know how it will all work out in the end, but we're excited by the first steps we saw at PAX East.

Shadow Warrior 2
Developer: Flying Wild Hog
Platform: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Release Window: Fall 2016

2014's Shadow Warrior was pitched as a remake of a classic 3D Realms game. What it ended up as was a game that stands on its own regardless of its history. 

Flying Wild Hog's update of Lo Wang's sword-swinging adventure was so well received that it has spawned a sequel that greatly expands on the first game's features and ambition. Where Shadow Warrior was a linear affair, the sequel features an open world with some procedurally generated areas. Where Lo Wang's first adventure was a by-the-numbers linear shooter, the follow-up features a quest system that ties in with the more action-RPG oriented combat and loot features.

Shadow Warrior 2 doesn't feel like a different game. The well-designed melee system, flashy chi magic, and hard-hitting guns are all intact (though the number of weapons has blossomed to now number 70). However, the way the pieces fit together (including a multiplayer system) give the game a grander positioning.

In the demo, I was able to take on demon hordes, hunt down artifacts for a main quest, uncover new weapons and upgrade items, and generally wreak a lot of bloody havoc. Demons can be hacked to bits and dismembered before death. Elemental effects on weapons and keywords on enemies (think Diablo's elite monsters that might be resistant to certain attack types or carry additional abilities or traits) make combat more than just a shoot-til-they-drop affair.

Where Shadow Warrior made a bloody mark in the shooter field, the sequel has the potential to rise above the pack with its Borderlands-style elements. We still have a few months to wait and have yet to experience a multiplayer demo, but Shadow Warrior 2's diverse flavors are already coming together as a savory, bloody stew.

Ruiner
Developer: Reikon Games
Platform: PC
Release Window: Late 2016

Devolver Digital sure does love to show us games that deal with revenge. Ruiner features a mask-wearing man hunting for the people that kidnapped his brother and other downtrodden individuals.

Your hunt for him will pit you against the city's gangs, and while the numbers are overwhelming, you have some tools at your disposal. Ruiner fuels a variety of special abilities with energy, and managing that resource in the midst of fast-paced combat is crucial.

The main skill you'll use is a dash that can zip you past enemies, into cover, or up close to deliver a killing blow with a melee weapon. Time slows when you target your dash or when you pick up a new weapon (you can carry a one ranged and one melee). Your guns come equipped with limited ammo and can't be reloaded, so you'll regularly be looking for your next firearm.

When you add a shield to the mix, you can barrel into enemies for an instant kill that saps a great deal of your energy. Your limited power can also be used to throw grenades (flash, frag, and more). Energy recharges as you hit enemies or when you find a pickup or pad that juices you back up.

Using these abilities in concert creates a bloody ballet. There's a lot going on, and figuring out when to zip in for a hit or multi-dash to retreat and re-evaluate the situation is key.

Ruiner's combat evoked memories of Supergiant's Transistor. Though the parallels aren't universal, elements of the stick-and-move fighting system plucked the same notes.

Playing Ruiner with a mouse-and-keyboard was challenging, though not impossible. But gamepad support should give plebs like me a way to better enjoy the experience. 

I'm eager to play more of the glitzy, anime-inspired revenge tale. There's definitely a learning curve, and I feel like I've only scratched the surface of combat that rewards skill while nudging players to experiment with its clever movement system and powerful special attacks.

Klang
Developer: Tinimations
Platform: PC
Relase Window: 2016

Since man learned he could carry a tune, music has woven its way in and enhanced our entertainment in a variety of ways. In video games, that has expressed itself purely in the form of Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, and Rock Band, but also more esoterically in other genres. 

Luminous proved that music puzzlers could reward people for clever thinking while keeping the beat. Amplitude challenged our fingers to tap out challenging rhythms in our beat blasters. Rez let us sink into the music with a shooter that could either be challenging or mellow (depending on your mood) with its zen-like presentation.

Klang is the latest to take pounding beats and trance-like tracks and blend them with a foreign genre. It's a platformer that will have you jumping, bouncing off walls, and avoiding environmental hazards all while using the right stick or face buttons to reflect projectiles back at foes. 

The blend of managing the environment and keeping tabs on the fast-moving bullets that are best blasted back on the beat is challenging, with what seems like a great skill curve for those that want to go back and improve. Players are ranked at each level, and performance in part dictates how much secret content is unlocked along the way. When the story mode is finished, challenges offer a reason to come back for more.

Part of the reason Klang works so well is that it doesn't rely on a HUD. Low health and extended grooving on successful notes are communicated via different palette changes.

The incoming "notes" move with your tunefork sword-wielding hero, so your eyes don't need to dart all over the screen. And since you're moving through the world, you aren't losing screen real estate because you have to focus on a limited area.

The music, which was composed by EDM artist bLiNd pulled me in, and the combat was engaging. Klang has a flashy, gorgeous aesthetic drenched in neon that includes elements of Greek gods and blasting speakers. The mashup works, but with the story a mystery for now, we don't know exactly what's going on in the pulse-pounding world. We're certainly eager to find out, though.

Read on for our picks from our first day at PAX East.

[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.