Wednesday, March 4

Top 20 Indie Games at PAX East 2020

It's that time once more to try to narrow down my list of games that impressed me the most at PAX East this year. With over 70 games to choose from getting it down to a tight 20 was a challenge but for the most part I'm happy with the result. Please bear in mind the way I do this isn't to choose my personal favorite games or the 20 that were absolutely most impressive. With the indie game making and playing communities being so diverse my goal is to try to come up with a list that is representative of as much of the spectrum as possible where all of the games represent the best that I saw offered at the show. With that, I present you my top 20 in a somewhat ranked order (though since they're all over the spectrum it's all relative).

Pumpkin Jack [Headup Games] - Looking at everything I checked out at PAX this year I'd be hard-pressed to come up with any title that was as exciting as Pumpkin Jack. Put together by a single developer (let me pick my jaw back up off the floor) this 3D action platformer, to me, has an essence to it that reminds me of Rare classics like Banjo-Kazooie. Not only are the various worlds you'll be moving through visually impressive and diverse, the inclusion of some surprises like an excellent throwback mine cart sequence are absolutely sure to bring a smile to just about any face. Planned for a launch around Halloween this may be the perfect title to enjoy this Fall.

Spin Rhythm XD [Super Spin Division] - I'll just come out and say it, in terms of the games from PAX East that I would immediately and gladly go back to play more of this is probably at the top of my list. Visually it is impressive, mixing concepts and looks from Guitar Hero and some other series. While I want to go back and understand how everything plays on an analog controller I've got to admit using a DJ turntable controller they had there was incredibly cool. What surprised me is that even as crazy as things could look on screen the controls were intuitive and worked very well, of course having a great soundtrack to compliment the action was icing on the cake. If you're a rhythm game fan this is absolutely a game to be on the look out for!

Streets of Rage 4 [DotEmu] - What I got to sample last year already looked and played spectacularly but this year's demo seemed to be highly polished and absolutely ready for prime time. The stations for this were pretty consistently packed with people eager to enjoy some retro play or just watch the gloriously animated action. Throw in the new character just announced last week and this is shaping up to be the beat-em-up to beat this year.

Raji: An Ancient Epic [Nodding Heads Games] - If you want a great example of what can happen when you continue to bring new cultures and traditions into the gaming mix, Raji should be at the top of the list. Visually stunning and steeped in symbolism and religious figures from Indian culture, there's a unique essence to it that's refreshing. To top it off the movement and combat are surprisingly fluid and in many ways unique, with a variety of creative opportunities being offered for people to change up typical fights with opportunistic use of the environment. If you've been looking for a title that can throw you some curveballs to defy your normal expectations the looks, sounds, and feel of Raji should already deliver, the fact that the action also feels fresh makes it a pretty compelling package.

Hindsight 20/20 [Triple-I Games] - Conceptually this may have been the most fascinating game I played at PAX this year, though that's in no way meant to imply the gameplay isn't rock-solid as well. Moreso than pretty well any other game I've played, Hindsight is focused on forcing you to make decisions. That's not just in cut-scenes where you choose your path though, even in combat you have a choice to make, either choosing bloodshed or simply stunning your opponents. One way this increased the effort in development is that both fighting styles have their own feel and flow, effectively doubling the game's combat and upgrade systems and both felt solid and distinct from one another. Put this together and pretty well every choice will have consequences on the flow of the story, and as I played both ways it became clear that there is no "right" answer. The characters in this world aren't cookie cutter archetypes who are clearly black and white, making it feel like repeated playthroughs would present you with very different outcomes depending on the paths you take.

Liberated [Atomic Wolf] - There are some games you just glance at and know they're likely going to sell and this is one of them. With a hand-drawn comic book noir vibe, a story involving a dystopian near-future, and some gritty stealth and shooting action it sucks you in pretty easily. The test will be seeing where it all ends up going. Regardless, based on my time with it and the response of pretty well anyone I saw giving it a go this will be a title to keep an eye out for later this year.

Fuser [Harmonix] - When you have a pedigree of the Rock Band and Dance Central franchises in your portfolio there's a mix of security in knowing how to make great games but no doubt also some unease when you venture into new territory. Fuser has some very general DNA from other music titles out there but I can't say that I've ever seen a title that handles music tracks and experimenting with combining them in quite this way before. Using a very eclectic library of music from many genres and eras you'll need to mix tracks in new and exciting ways to create new music, and in the demo I played I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the results. Ultimately, I think Fuser's success is going to rest heavily on the final library of songs they're able to allow you to work with, as variety and not being allowed to fall into comfortable patterns will be what makes or breaks the longevity of the game experience. That said, I can't wait to get back into it to again play with music in a way I've never been able to before.

Rainbow Billy: The Curse of Leviathan [ManaVoid Entertainment] - With visual elements reminiscent of the likes of Cuphead and moving from black and white to almost painfully colorful and cheery, Rainbow Billy makes a strong impression. The gameplay itself is an unusual combination of platform puzzling, mini games, and strategic turn-based combat with shades of Pokemon. My main thought is that though I was able to sort out how to be successful in the battles it definitely could use some clarification. That's especially the case since the game's visuals and style look like they'll attract a potentially wide audience. It has the elements that could make it a break-out star, it will be fascinating to see where the full experience lands on launch.

Lonely Mountains: Downhill [Megagon Industries] - Having played and loved this one quite a bit on the PC before even picking this up I was already a fan, but happy to report that it plays very well on the Switch as well. For those unfamiliar this is a title focused on riding your bike down treacherous mountain trails in search of short cuts that are just about everywhere... if you've got the skills and patience to pull off taking them. Challenging, gorgeous with its somewhat tilt shift visual look, and absolutely unlike just about anything on the Switch, this is a sports title well worth picking up when it arrives on the system later this year.

Drake Hollow [The Molasses Flood] - At a glance there's no doubt many gamers will immediately get heavy Fortnite vibes, though that's the original intended core game of Fortnite and not the Battle Royale flavor that took over the gaming landscape. You, and potentially your fellow players, have been put on a series of small islands, and your goal is to find and then protect some very cute little dudes. To do so you'll need to explore, collect resources, and then craft barriers and other elements around your central camp. You'll need to work quickly though as periodically some nasty customers are going to be on the attack, and while you'll want to show up and help fight them off there will be many more of them then you so whatever edge you can get through what you build will be a great help. While the quick demo didn't leave much time to appreciate all aspects of the gameplay it looks gorgeous, has online multiplayer support, and seems set to entertain when it launches later this year.

Panzer Paladin [Tribute Games] - For fans of the swashbuckling roguelike Flinthook (hand raised, and if you're not familiar with it you should check it out) this latest from the folks at Tribute Games may look like a step back as they've decided to go 8-bit with their new title. The thing is, even though the level of fine detail is obviously lower that doesn't make the look any less impressive, they visually own the look of the era so I can respect that. In terms of the gameplay itself it's also a bit of a throwback to slashing platformers that weren't uncommon in the day, but again in the demo I played they really own it. A variety of weapons you can find and pick up to help you out (ranging from impressive to outright silly), spots where you'll want to exit your armor to complete side objectives a bit more exposed, and some tough boss battles are all along for the ride here, making it a retro title to absolutely keep an eye out for.

Bake N' Switch [Streamline Games] - A quick look at the trailer for most people will immediately leave the impression that this is some sort of clone or distant cousin of Overcooked. While to some degree there are similarities, spending some time playing it proved that theory is generally false, and in terms of mechanics Bake 'N Switch is quite different and perhaps more accessible as well. Rather than collecting and preparing a variety of ingredients to make dishes to serve to customers, here you'll need to deal with little dough-based creatures. Working together to combine and then bake them, you're trying to please a grumpy island God who, if not satiated by your baked goods quickly enough, will consume the world instead. This change in focus makes the action pretty different, and in many ways I think helps ease cooperation amongst your team since people are more able to take charge of roles that suit their skills. Since most of the activities are so involved in terms of action, single-player may be challenging to implement well unless it is set to allow for more of a zone defense approach with AI multi-tasking a bit on its own. Thankfully the plans for online multiplayer should help to make sure you have a fair chance of someone having your back even if there's nobody to play with locally.

A Fold Apart [Lightning Rod Games] - Pairing up smart and engaging puzzles with a touching narrative has evolved into being a rock solid strategy, and some of my favorite Switch titles have had that pairing. What I was able to play of A Fold Apart was very encouraging in that regard, telling the tale of 2 people (that you're able to choose their respective genders at the start is a great inclusive touch) in love but with physical distance between them. The puzzle-based hook is the manipulation of the paper-like environments, whether flipping them over, folding, or otherwise changing them in a way that completes your path to continue your progress. Even in the short demo you could see how this could lead to creative solutions and the loving nature of the story playing out with your success was just the icing on the cake.

Helheim Hassle [Perfectly Paranormal] - As the second part of an intended trilogy of quirky games, Helheim Hassle takes a pretty different gameplay direction from its cousin Manual Samuel but shares its odd sense of humor. The gimmick here is that it may be a puzzle platformer, but what quickly sets it apart is your character's ability to drop limbs from his body, which you'll need to do in order to deal with the varied challenges the game throws your way. Combinations like a single leg, arm, and your head hopping along make for some very silly visuals and there seems to be a reasonable potential for finding more than one solution to some puzzles which helps it to feel creative. If you enjoy off-center experiences this is absolutely one to look out for.

Sky Racket [Double Dash Studios] - Elevator pitch time... what do you get when you combine Breakout mechanics with a shoot-em-up? It turns out a unique, clever, and legitimately challenging (at times) experience you'll even be able to enjoy with a friend. Don't let the somewhat Saturday Morning cartoon look fool you, minding bullets and the projectiles you need to use to knock out blocks (or bosses) can get quite involved. A very fresh idea that has been well-implemented.

Disc Room [Devolver Digital] - The pick up and play nature of the Switch seems perfectly suited to the sort of intense, challenging, and deliciously bloody action Disc Room brings to the table. Appropriately billed as a "dodge-em-up" you don't have much choice but to work to avoid a wide variety of lethal blades and some tough bosses as they ricochet around the room. Whether you're just down for the challenge of beating the game, completing all of the room-based challenges, or working to survive longer than anyone else on the leaderboards it may be a relatively simple concept but it's tough and it works well.

The Red Lantern [Kowloon Nights] - This is one of those demos where you can see the potential all laid out but it feels like the scope of the variety has been held back so it could go either way. As much as the dog sledding meets survival meets roguelike unpredictability is the obvious hook, what made me audibly laugh several times was the game's dialogue and how some of the choices you can make will play out at times. Encountering a small flock of birds there was an option to let the dogs loose on them and they proceeded to catch and eat them all... which made me laugh, but in practical terms it was great because they now had more full bellies to keep us moving. There was also an extended exchange where I was talking to an owl that had some great dialogue options so I'm hoping there are things like that peppered throughout. At the core is the hard reality that this is a survival game and since you start out with limited ammo you'll need to carefully consider when best to use it, but perhaps the RNG gods on any given run will make it tougher on you too so you may need to take the opportunities you get and try to make the most of them. There's no doubt this is a very different game that has a great look and some charm but I'm very curious to see the whole package to better understand its total depth.

Wunderling [Retroid] - While Wunderling has the appearance of a cute and innocent casual sort of experience don't believe its LIES! Playing as a former evil game boss who has been given a new lease on life by a witch you'll look to complete a long series of puzzle platforming levels to exact your revenge on the protagonist who stomped on you so callously. The real evil is in all of the game's secrets though, and the lengths you'll need to go to testing both your mind and dexterous abilities to get it all. Loads of cosmetic upgrades help incentivize you to try to get them all but be prepared to be challenged. When a game gets the "simple controls in a tough game" formula right it can be aggravatingly glorious and Wunderling seems to have nailed the landing when it comes to that goal.

Neon Abyss [Team 17] - A stylish and pretty challenging roguelike platform shooter, Neon Abyss had personality, insanity, and visual flair to spare. While I've played a load of top-down twin-stick shooters moving to a side-scrolling platform shooter really changes things up, and in many ways presents new challenges. Loads of weapons, cosmetics, and power-ups in some ways reminded me of the Binding of Isaac approach where what you're going to work with on any given run is highly unpredictable and that pretty well immediately makes me a fan. Offering up a hot look and fresh perspective on challenging roguelike shooting this is one I'm very much looking forward to seeing on the Switch.

Swimsanity [Decoy Games] - I'd gotten the opportunity to check out this colorful multiplayer game at last year's show, but only the Deathmatch mode. This year I also got to sample the cooperative adventure mode and that has raised my level of excitement for the title since it helps to further differentiate the game from a crowded pack of generally average multiplayer shooters on the system. There's no doubt that the pretty silly nature of over-the-top attacks like the summonable Shark will help make this a hit with families and with a fair amount of variety in the game's modes it should prove to have far more longevity than the average competition in this space currently on Switch. Throw in online multiplayer with hopes for multi-platform support and this may be a big winner when it gets released later this year.