The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) is one of the few places in the video game industry where you get to watch dreams made in real-time. There’s nothing quite like watching a microscopic booth slowly assemble a ton of momentum for an underdog game over the course of a few days. At the latest PAX event in Boston, there were plenty of opportunities to do just that. Fans, media, industry executives come to PAX to be blown away by something completely unexpected. These are the ones that made the biggest impression.
The Darwin Project by Scavengers Studio
Stranded in a frozen wasteland, body temperature dropping precipitously. A trail of blood in the snow making me an easy mark for the guy who stuck an arrow in my side a few moments ago. The best I could do was build a makeshift fire and hold my own in a dilapidated cabin. It was terrifying. It was thrilling.
The Darwin Project is the first game out from Scavengers Studio. A sort of supergroup of ex-Triple A guys from the potent Montreal games scene. Home to big studios like EA and Ubisoft. The genre is a sort of Battle Royale / Hunger Games type game. You all spawn in different corners of an icy, dystopian wilderness with an axe and a bow. You harvest leather, cut down trees, and do your best to stay warm… all the while hunting each other down. The last person alive wins the round.
Strafe by Pixel Titans, Devolver Digital
Devolver Digital settled on for the retro shooter title Strafe is “Bleeding Edge Graphics And Gameplay circa 1996”. So naturally, you play as a rugged space marine careening down starchy, Quake III-textured corridors. Leaving an endless trail of disemboweled alien gristle in your wake. It’s a game made for circle-strafers, by circle-strafers. I’m imagining a room full of grizzled FPS vets in the midst of a eureka moment after one of them says “what if we made a Doom game where you could aim up?”
Galaxy of Pen and Paper by Behold Studios
As the name implies, Galaxy of Pen and Paper is about role-playing. You play as the game master of a sci-fi Dungeons of Dragons knock off and escort a party through a self-consciously 4th-wall-breaking campaign. The pixel art is beautifully rendered, the combat is filtered through a simple, satisfying turn-based system, and the writing is genuinely funny.
There’s an interesting system where you can self-design missions for your own party. It’s far from the most inventive thing I saw at PAX, but it does manage to capture the magical kinship of geekdom. At every moment you’re reminded that this game was built by people with a deep affection for the tabletop RPG, and I love how that shines through.
Nidhogg 2 by Messhof
For a long time, Nidhogg was one of those indie game white whales, the sort of project that showed up at trade shows like PAX for years without a release date in sight. It’s probably the most satisfying dueling game ever made. The design was simple: two primitive sprites locked in a tug-of-war sword fight across a side-scrolling map. You had three stances, a jab button, and the option to chuck your weapon with a hilarious overhead hurl. All of that will return in Nidhogg 2, along with an updated art style (think more Sega Genesis than Atari 2600) and an expanded armory including a bow and arrow, a claymore, and a dagger.
Pyre by Supergiant Games
Pyre is an action RPG presented through the framework of a sports game. Two teams of three fight over a neutral ball in the center of an isometric map. If you put the ball in the other team’s pyre, you reduce their flame by a certain threshold. Whoever extinguishes the opposing team’s pyre first wins. A tap of the X button lets you pass the ball between teammates, if you hold down circle you can shoot a beam of energy which temporarily banishes enemies, and square lets you chuck the ball forward which will undoubtedly lead to some awesome Steph Curry moments.
It’s super high concept, which puts it right in line with the adventurous design docs of Supergiant’s other games. But honestly, the thing that intrigued me most was the narrative. You’re found on the side of the road by a hulking, big-horned woman, a chucklehead dude, and a cross-dressing, mustachioed dog. It’s the far-flung post-apocalypse, and the player-character is a cherished commodity because… they know how to read. That’s it. In this far-flung dystopia, literacy has taken on a mythic quality. Great stuff all around, and I can’t wait to see more.
Semblance by Nyamakop
Semblance is heartwarming. You play as a meek purple blob in a funky, Seussian world. It’s a platformer, and the controls are Meat Boy-esque, but the environment is fully modular. Jump and bang your head in the platform above you and you’ll start to leave a dent. Climb on top of that dent, and suddenly the MacGuffin necessary to open the next door is in reach. It’s a satisfying concept with the same addictive potential for iteration you find in other puzzlers like Portal or World of Goo. The design is sourced from a couple of South African developers – Cukia Kumani and Ben Myers – who stumbled onto the mechanics while working on their final project for university, and they absolutely deserve to find a publisher who can launch this thing for them.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 by Larian Studios
There are some new mechanics to Original Sin 2 – four player co-op, an authored player-creation introduction, and (thankfully) a completely reworked inventory system – but it’s also very much what you’d expect if you played the first game. You shipwreck on a fantasy, vaguely Grecian island and enjoy complex, free-flowing dialogue trees with a long list of flawed characters. That’s fine by me because nobody makes classic computer role-playing games quite like Larian Studios.
LawBreakers by Boss Key Productions
Cliff Bleszinski is out of his cage and finally making another video game. The dude has stayed remarkably quiet since leaving Epic Games after Gears of War 3, and there was some speculation that maybe after years of generating high-tech killing machines, that he might redirect his energy somewhere off the beaten path.
That hasn’t happened. Like, at all. In some ways, LawBreakers is the most Cliff Bleszinski-game ever. A futuristic cops-and-robbers arena shooter where everyone has a jetpack and the best players never even touch the ground. Blizzard‘s Overwatch is the obvious comparison, considering all the roles in LawBreakers come with a suite of abilities and an ultimate of some sort, but the tone is right in line with that grim, gun-metal fantasy Bleszinski is famous for.
It’s a roguelike, but it’s also a pachinko machine. I know that sounds insane, but that’s the best way I can describe Tumbleseed. You play as a tiny one-eyed sapling balanced on a screen-long platform. With both analog sticks, you can slowly roll your the platform back and forth while you push yourself up a giant, harrowing mountain. There are enemies, checkpoints, and puzzles along the way, but the boldest enemies are the potholes that threaten to plunge you to your doom. It almost makes you feel like you’re at Chuck E. Cheese, feeding quarters into a tough-but-fair carnival game. I like that the developers are willing to treat such a whimsical mechanic with the garnish of a full-length adventure.