Monday, April 1

Top 20 Indie Games at PAX East 2019

Let me preface this list with the normal caveat, my goal here isn’t necessarily to list my personal favorite 20 games I got to check out, my desire is more to be sure I’m representing titles across the spectrum in terms of genre, price point, and target audiences as well… sticking to the indie spirit. So my apologies for anyone who didn’t make the list, there were far more than 20 great games, just this is a way to throw some extra attention at the titles that had something about them that popped out at me as exciting or distinctive for whatever reason.

First, I’ll disqualify both The Messenger and Dead Cells DLC. Both are going to be free when they come to Switch and both are absolutely terrific, making two of my top games last year (and on the system period) even stronger and better values. I’ll also disqualify Cuphead and Castle Crashers, though I absolutely will tell anyone they’re incredible, simply because they’re such known quantities already, well deserving of all their accolades. With those out of the way, in no particular order, here are the games that made the biggest impression on me at the show this year.

Demon’s Tilt - While it currently isn’t slated for the Switch, this was a game I’d seen video for a few weeks back and absolutely had to check out. Played out on one giant continuous playfield that you’ll scroll up and down as you go it looks amazing, sounds great, and gets the feel of pinball right while peppering in all sorts of action with bosses and various enemies moving about. The developers even confirmed it can be played in vertical mode so it would be perfect on the Switch with a Flip Grip! Much like Double Kick Heroes, that I championed last year well before anything about it coming to Switch was known, this is a game I really believe in and would love to see on the system to bring something refreshing and cool to the table.

Katana ZERO - The blend of violence, slowdown mechanics, and intensity makes Katana ZERO easily stand out visually, but the character interactions and story it tells along the way are also fascinating. Depending on how you respond to people in your dialogue choices you may find yourself taking on additional challenges to be overcome, or unexpected help at a time you may really need it. In my demo I was actually pretty amused with some of the more unusual dialogue choices but then forgot what I’d previously said which caused the situation to blow up. That was unexpected and made quite an impression on top of the crazy action. Definitely one to keep an eye on.

Mistover - It looks great, it’s tough, and it offers up some vibes of the likes of Darkest Dungeon, but with more active strategy and roguelike elements as you try to move through the mist in search of the exit while trying to avoid traps. You’ll have to carefully cycle through your party members, using their abilities to do things like slow down time to put distance between you and monsters you’ll encounter, or perhaps just hide in a bush and hope they didn’t see you. Combat is very strategic, happening on a 3 x 3 grid, so your attacks and defensive moved will need to be carefully planned accordingly for maximum effect. Well worth waiting for later this year.

Atomicrops - If the elevator pitch doesn’t sound like fun I don’t know what’s wrong with you. Think Stardew Valley meets a twin-stick shooter. Work frantically to try to plant and cultivate your crops while fighting off all manner of enemies and dreaded weeds to build your farm and your arsenal. Weird, tough, and full of chaotic fun this game may just be weird enough to work, introducing multiple elements to genres you thought you knew and blending them together to make something new, challenging, and fun.

Double Kick Heroes - Just like when I played it last year, the game is rocking, just now on Switch hardware. Motion controls still haven’t been implemented, so I couldn’t check that out yet. Since the rhythms are pretty tough people will have an option to use the analog stick for notes, though I like to be precise and that was a bit too inaccurate for my tastes. Setting it up to use the buttons is a big improvement and the plan is to have some versatility with multiple control profiles supported so you’re able to rock out as you please. The zombie apocalypse has come, and your survival is dependent on your ability to jam out the rhythms to some great metal tunes.

Freedom Finger - Among the most bonkers games I’ve played in quite some time, this shooter is right up there near the top when it comes to creativity. You’ll control a giant hand with a certain finger extended shooting up, punching, and even grabbing enemies to use their weaponry for yourself. The soundtrack is going for a Tony Hawk-esque vibe, featuring a rocking collection of popular contemporary artists, and best of all each level’s art, flow, and even rhythm are a reflection of their respective tunes. This is a game to keep an eye on, just be ready for plenty of surprises and “WTF?” moments.

Creature in the Well - You know if a game features pinball mechanics I’m already on board, but this unique title really feels like it’s firing on all cylinders even in a moderate-length demo. You’ll be slashing your sword to deflect or collect and then fire energy at targets, and those shots can then ricochet which gives it the pinball feel. The unique mix of action and the Mike Mignola-esque art style or the environment and the title Creature absolutely make this a stand-out title coming to the Switch later this year.

Bloodroots - Wow… just wow. Oh, the creative violence this game inspires. You can pretty well grab anything at all and turn it into a lethal weapon as you slash, barrel roll, carrot bash, fish slap, and more through levels full of enemies. With the abundance of ways you can dispatch people, the initial focus would be survival but levels are well worth returning to in order to see if you can master them, maintaining your chained combos of carnage going to improve your score. A bloody good time and I can’t wait to play more of it to see where the game ultimately goes after such an intense and fun start.

What the Golf? - Oh, the puns and game reference-based jokes in this game. The mechanics are generally pretty simple as you’ll pick a direction, build energy, and then take a context-appropriate action depending on the level, in some regards loosely reminding me of one of my weirdo faves from last year, Pool Panic. With references to multiple real-life situations from the weird to the mundane and games as diverse as Flappy Bird, Superhot, and a certain block-breaking hero the levels are clever, funny, and full of surprises. While it currently isn’t slotted to go to Switch it seems like it would be a natural match and a great playthrough for anyone who wants a good laugh with some fun and varied play.

Duck Game - While I’ll admit that I’ve become pretty jaded when it comes to local multiplayer games, since it has generally gotten tough to differentiate many of them, Duck Game absolutely stands out from the rest of the flock. The completely ridiculous number of weapons and means to cook each other’s gooses, mixed with an abundance of stages, pretty well guarantees you’ll be unable to settle in and get into a predictable rut. Things like grenades that, once the pin is pulled, represent as much of an unpredictable threat to you as everyone else make it fun, especially when in small levels where perhaps those are the only option. Variety and an almost disturbing attention to nuance and details make the game as simple as you could want but deep for people looking to master every weapon and technique in the game. Supporting online multiplayer, a level editor, and of course a dedicated quack button, this the breakout multiplayer experience you’ve been waiting for.

Boyfriend Dungeon - The indie scene has been doing a terrific job of merging genres together, including ones that are unlikely, and Boyfriend Dungeon very much occupies that space. Part dungeon-exploring action RPG and part dating sim, it may sound unusual but in practice it weirdly seems to make perfect sense. As you work through dialogue and build a stronger relationship with various people they’ll then represent more powerful weapons you’ll make use of in the dungeons themselves as you fight through enemies and seek out loot and new “weapons”. Very different and fun, it’ll be well worth a look when it arrives on Switch.

Rashlander - While gamers who aren’t quite as “vintage” as I am may not remember Lunar Lander and it’s physics-based style of challenge, Rashlander is looking to change that by adding a roguelike twist. You’ll be working to move through space as quickly as possible, dodging debris and asteroids, conserving your fuel, and then trying to land carefully on a platform without blowing yourself up. As you progress you’ll get 3 options to help you out as you venture further and the challenge continues to ramp up. A great example of retro arcade style meeting modern sensibilities, the rounds of this should generally be pretty quick, making is a great on-the-go challenge.

Dusk - Plain and simple, this is old school FPS action done right. The level design flows well, there’s a fair amount of verticality, and the weapons are precisely what you’d expect with some ridiculous new additions as well like dual-wielded shotguns and more. I particularly like the dual melee sickles that can be quite satisfying to use. There’s been a recent rush of games looking to recapture that old FPS spirit, and Dusk absolutely looks to be the one at the front of the line. Look to tear through some crazy enemies in it later this year.

Monster Sanctuary - The elevator pitch for this one immediately grabs your attention: Mix a Metroidvania side-scrolling style with Pokemon-esque monster collector elements. Starting out with one of 4 spirit animals who’ll be your primary companion, you’ll engage in turn-based combat with enemies, sometimes then collecting eggs as part of your reward, which you’ll then be able to hatch to add new companions to your party. Unlike Pokemon, as your creatures level up you’ll be able to manage their skill tree to help create an effective team that suits your personal style in combat as well. The core concept is a smart one, taking established and proven core ideas but then changing things up to look to further improve on them.

Rez Plz - While I’m not positive it is quite official that this clever and funny co-op platformer is coming to Switch it would certainly be right at home. You’ll control two wizards in training who simply aren’t very good at their jobs, but who will be able to cooperate and make smart use of resurrection stones to get through a wide variety of lethal traps and challenges. Part of the fun is in watching the many gruesome ways they can meet their ends, and sometimes this is absolutely necessary, with one sacrificing themselves for the other to advance. Smart and silly this looks to be a terrific game to enjoy with a friend… just don’t take it too personally if it is you that gets sacrificed.

Felix The Reaper - Featuring possibly one of the cutest reapers you could ever imagine, Felix is in love and he’s not afraid to show it as he dances around solving puzzles. You’ll need to work only in the shadows, so manipulating the angle of the stage you’re on in relation to the sun will dictate where you can move at any given time. You’ll then need to be clever and move things around in order to clear yourself a path to work with and progress towards meeting his beloved Betty, the Maiden of Light.

One Finger Death Punch 2 - It takes some real talent to make games with a limited number of inputs work well, and One Finger Death Punch 2 absolutely wrecks the budget brawler space with its 2-button insanity. Limited inputs in no way equate to limited variation and action, and once you’re up to speed with all of the game’s core elements it starts throwing everything at you at once. Extremely well-suited to quick and bloody play sessions, this game had a smile on my face within the first minute that never went away.

Skull Girls Second Encore - Obviously made by a team of people who are absolutely passionate about classic 2D fighters, Skull Girls Second Encore is dripping with style but also extremely sound technically. For the most part the impressive set of moves each fighter possesses will immediately click with Street Fighter vets, and the absolutely ridiculous number of single and multiplayer modes, extensive tutorials, and online support will make this a must-own for fighting fans once it arrives on Switch later this year.

SteamWorld Quest - There’s no doubt the pressure is on (Hah!) for the folks at Image and Form (well, now I suppose Thunderful) as they roll out another new entry in the SteamWorld series and yet again have chosen a new genre to change things up with. Though this RPG experience may be quite different, it’s easy to feel elements of the terrific SteamWorld Heist’s strategic turn-based play have carried over. Beautiful, charming, and smart, the gameplay I got to enjoy seemed very consistent with the series’ strong track record of care and quality. You won’t have long to wait either as it is coming to the Switch in just a few weeks.

Super Slime Arena - Yet another multiplayer game with a reasonably cute graphical style, Super Slime Arena may look easy to dismiss at first, but just a few minutes of play will likely help change your mind. The trick is that every time you die you’ll come back as a different random slime, and though each of them have only a jump and an attack button to work with you’ll quickly discover that every character’s skill is completely different. With attacks ranging from straight-up punches to all manner of strange weapons this makes the action quite unpredictable. Likely supporting more than 4 players locally, and even more online, the bonkers nature of battles may not have the same degree of technique as something like Smash but that doesn’t mean it won’t be chaotic fun.

Once again I wanted to thank all of the great indie developers and PR folks I met at the show last year, everyone was extremely polite, passionate, and accommodating. Looking forward to seeing you all again next year and I wish everyone the best of luck and success in the coming year!