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PAX East is a bizarre beast of a convention. It sits on the cusp of not quite wholly professional, but not exactly “grassroots” either. It’s a convention where you can have press appointments, but just as easily see a game on a whim. I’ve been going to Pax East since 2012, and while I took some time off from it the past two years, coming back has been a pretty nice experience.
When I first started attending PAX, I typically beelined for well-known AAA games and wasted a ton of time waiting in line to play the likes of Borderlands 2, Evolve, or The Elder Scrolls Online. As the years have gone on, however, I find myself in the indie megabooth more and more, scavenging for those interesting games I wouldn’t see or hear about anywhere else. That’s really where I spent most of my this year, and there were more than a few interesting games to see.
I watched my good friend Alexis play this game, and it really seems like a good time. You take on the role of a girl with a cool gun and some hi-tech roller derby gear as she slides across ruined buildings in the sky. The game goes for a cel-shaded aesthetic, more similar to a Borderlands than a Wind Waker, and it worked really well for the presentation. The vivid colors gave you just the right idea of when you should start and stop running and sliding across the floors and walls.
The developer manning the booth said that one of the main ideologies behind the game was to support speedrunning natively. From the levels that were demoed, it’s incredibly obvious speedrunning was their goal. Everything is reflexive and skill-based, and while it’ll be interesting to see how it holds up in its full form, what was shown seemed fluid and fun.
The only real complaint I had with the game is it seemed to be a little frustrating to open the end-of-level reward boxes, and in a game all about speed, any slowdown can ruin that intrinsic flow. Super Cloudbuilt will be out on Steam, Xbox One, and PS4 this summer.
Now this is a game that was right up my alley, even if my ideal set-up would be at home instead of an event. The booth itself for the game was a tiny tent with a skull atop it, so of course, I instantly wanted to check it out. While we were waiting in line, one of the developers came up to give his pitch on the game, describing it as a David Lynchian Morrowind with Majora’s Mask sensibilities. Boy howdy, already I was intrigued by just how that would all manage to come together and the answer is…I’m still not sure.
Pathologic is a game about ambiguous choices. In the full release you’ll play as one of three characters, but for the purpose of this demo I controlled a doctor working his damndest to quarantine and cure a plague outbreak. Gameplay wasn’t very complex, there were hunger, illness, and health meters in the top corner, but in the short time I had with the game they never really got close to dipping past halfway. As I walked around this decrepit house that doubled as a clinic, I talked to various NPCs, each with their own cryptic questions and answers. While I appreciated the way the game dropped me immediately in as this character, the vagueness of the answers were almost too vague in some cases. I would say things about never giving up, or give defenses of character, but the game would often act as if I had done just the opposite, which didn’t seem exactly intentional.
The “Lynchian” aspects of the game, while strong in some parts, are incredibly heavy-handed in others. Close to the end of the demo I was faced with an incarnation of death, who tried multiple avenues of conversation in order to lead me to an early grave. Any wrong answer would actually outright kill my character, but if I managed to stick to what I could figure out of my character’s beliefs, he would make it through. On the other hand, earlier on I walked into the living room to find a live bull standing there, with no real rhyme or reason. While I’m all for wackiness, most of the game up to that point had been incredibly somber and serious. All of a sudden, this bull was peppered in without any real thought, purpose or interaction, and it really left me wondering just how well the full game could deliver cohesion.
While my demo took place over the course of a single in-game day, the full game will be over twelve, with multiple endings and a much more open environment. When I got home to do more research on this game, I was surprised to find that this was actually a re-imagining of a 2005 game of the same name. While I’m unsure of its legacy, or just how well this new edition holds up to it, I’m nonetheless interested to find out more about the game in the near future. For anyone who wants to see what I got to see at PAX, the same demo I played is now available on Steam for free.
THE GARDENS BETWEEN
The Gardens Between is much easier to explain than Pathologic. You take on the role of two characters, a boy and a girl, as they try to carry their lantern to the top of a series of artistically diverse mountains. The game starts out simple, with just a single button press between you and the end, and while it never quite got to the more complicated levels of something like Captain Toad, it at least mixed itself up in some surprising ways.
One level puzzled me for a moment, before a split path made me realize I wasn’t just controlling one character; I was controlling both at the same time. Managing the new nuance the game required wasn’t very hard, but it left me wondering just how difficult the later levels of the game could get with these mechanics.
Unfortunately, while the visuals were quaint and interesting, I’m not too sure about the soundtrack, since there were no headphones for the booth I visited. Although it might seem a tad superfluous, I find that with most games, especially more artistically-focused ones, the right soundtrack can really make the whole experience stronger than it might’ve seemed. Coupling this with the most minimalistic hook of a story, I really didn’t know if the possibilities of interesting puzzles would be enough to carry this whole game. Hopefully there’s more to find in The Gardens Between, but we probably won’t know much more until its scheduled release later this year.
PAX is more than just a few games to play, and it’s surprisingly a lot more nuanced than the giant ESPORTS MERCH sign lets on.
While any convention is full of cosplayers and merch booths, PAX is also full of cool places you probably wouldn’t get to see otherwise. There are tons of rooms on the outside ring of the convention hall that let pretty much anyone hang out to just talk or play some older games together. Particularly notable rooms are places like the Bioware “base” where you could go for pretty much anything you can imagine about Mass Effect or Dragon Age, or the couple Diversity Lounges. While their inception was less than stellar, as the first incarnations were developed solely off of a PAX organizer’s inflammatory remarks against transgender people, they’ve flourished into a much more comfortable area (complete with all-gender bathrooms which were a saving grace for me and many others).
For attendees looking for the classic con experience, AKA spending loads of money on extravagant merch, there were plenty of import and specialty stores set up with booths across the convention hall. While there were a couple of smaller local game store booths I perused, there were also ones like the lavish Video Games New York booth, complete with such fine products as a $150 Neptunia collectors lunchbox. If you’re looking for cheap games, it’s safe to say that the local booths are your best bet, but the booths with import plushies and figures can end up a little too good to pass up
STEAMWORLD DIG 2
Steamworld Dig is a good game! It’s one of those weird 3DS eShop releases that early adopters probably remember as one of Nintendo’s first big Nindie pushes a few years back. While the first Steamworld was very much a mining and resource management game, it had some light platforming hooks to break the monotony now and then. With its sequel, Steamworld Heist, the developers moved away from the simplistic mining of its predecessor with a bombastic X-COMlike set in space. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with that jump, it was nice for a fan of the first to see them getting closer to their roots with a proper Steamworld Dig sequel.
Instead of Rusty, the main character of Steamworld Dig, you’ll be digging as former merchant Dorothy, as she tries to find clues to Rusty’s mysterious disappearance. While I said that the series is getting back to its roots with Dig 2, it does seem to be leaning much more heavily into its metroidvania elements. While you’ll still be mining and picking up all types of rocks and gems, the main focus seems to be on dodging traps and defeating larger enemies. Instead of developing and creating more tools to better explore, I found them lying around in the environment, with the puzzles requiring their use just feet away While I’m all for streamlining, part of what made me love the original game was the gradual build up in power from my simple time spent mining, and the since-removed mechanic of using steam to activate these abilities made the whole experience feel a lot less complex than my memories of Dig.
All that said, the core platforming was fun and simple. You jump, you dash, and you can break specific parts of the terrain with your pickaxe in all four primary directions. Despite some of my personal hang-ups, if you’re looking for a good metroidvania-esque platformer to fool around in, you could do a lot worse than this. Steamworld Dig 2 will be coming out on Switch first this summer, and then pretty much every other console you can think of a few months later.
Klang is already out! I didn’t know this, and the booth said the game was coming soon when I finished the demo so that’s weird.
It’s a rhythm platformer where you attack using the face buttons in-time with the music. I thought it was fine but I’d much rather play it on a custom controller than be forced to contend with the right analog stick’s inaccuracy and the frustration of hitting two face buttons at once consistently. The music was pretty good though, and if you’re into the sort of game like Crypt of the Necrodancer where rhythmic execution feels more substantial, then you’d probably wanna check it out.
One of the best games I checked, if only for style. Dead Cells is a Castlevania-style roguelike that procedurally generates the castle each time you start. This idea in itself isn’t exactly revolutionary, as games like Rogue Legacy have already tapped into this potential, but it all seems a little more considered.
You play as a pretty generic knight that starts as a pile of ooze, which you will return to being each time you die. You fight enemies with a ranged or melee weapon, hop around with platforming, etc etc. What made Dead Cells feel a lot better than something like Rogue Legacy was the way it handled its map creation. I ran through about four runs of the game, and each time I was impressed by just how well the individual rooms met each other.
In lieu of each room taking up an entire screen, Dead Cells renders an entire castle floor at once. This design choice ends up letting each level actually feel like it was methodically designed, rather than slapped together at random. While there are a few specific rooms that will always show up (for example a secret room that leads to a skill-based risk/reward challenge), they never feel so obtrusive as to disrupt gameplay flow.
The title of Dead Cells is more than just dressing, since it actually represents the core gameplay loop. As you kill enemies, you’ll get parts of their cells, similar to the souls enemies drop in Aria of Sorrow. Unlike Aria of Sorrow, however, you can pick what sort of abilities you want to spend these cells on. Whether it be more ammo generation, more health, more attack power etc, being able to customize your build to suit the playstyle you want really helps make the core skill progression of the game feel fun, without relegating unique gameplay to specific other characters.
What really stuck out to me about the game was its fantastic art direction. As the developer manning the booth explained, they had started making a more 16-bit inspired SNES looking game, but quickly realized just how easy that would be, as it doesn’t exactly utilize the capabilities modern game design allows for. So, they opted to making this cool 2.5D artstyle where environments and characters all look 2D, but they’re animated in three dimensions. In practice it looks really, really good, lending an impact to every animation that looks and feels weighty.
Dead Cells will be hitting early access on PC at some point this spring, and I’m especially eager to see how it evolves over time.
MORE FREE TIME
As you get further away from the center of the convention floor, you can almost put the booming voices of the Esports Merch Booth demanding you to buy great discounted headphones out of your mind. The edges of the floor can be pretty interesting if you know what you’re looking for. Of course, there are places like the dreaded utilikilt booth, but there are also plenty of booths for nearby colleges that support game design, showing off student projects and glimpses at their own various programs.
I’ve never been one for the tabletop area, but it’s enthralling to see how much more communal it feels than the rest of PAX. You can find tables filled with people all laughing and leaning over to others to talk about the things they love, and it’s really endearing. While I doubt I’ll ever be the type of person to go out and drop a cool 20$ on matching sets of die, the sheer amount of options and customizable stuff on sale around the perimeter seemed incredibly neat.
In stark contrast to the communal sentiments of the tabletop area, I spent a good chunk of my Saturday waiting in line for the FFXIV Battle Challenge because I am a horrible person with bad priorities. While I ultimately did get a comfy shirt out of it, the ordeal of teaching nearly half the members of my party how to play the game (many of them had just waited in the line for a free t-shirt which, baffled me), was incredibly frustrating. Luckily, I was good enough at the game to both teach and pick up the slack for the rest of them, and really, isn’t boasting what MMOs are all about?
THE COLINA LEGACY
This is a difficult game to talk about, personally. When you’re early on in a game’s development, there’s a lot a developer is going to be focusing on, and optimization is definitely not one of them. I was instantly drawn to The Colina Legacy’s booth because of its incredibly anachronistic exterior. Looking like a creepy abandoned house cut in two, the demo stations were set up inside the dark interior, full of grimy windows and wooden tables. In terms of atmosphere, you could hardly do much better, but unfortunately the translation of this aesthetic in-game left the opposite impression.
The Colina Legacy is about a man named Alex. Alex was apparently a really cool kid, and everyone liked him, at least that’s what all the newspaper clippings scattered around his grandmother’s abandoned house tell us. His grandmother is missing, but Alex doesn’t seem too bothered by this or the state of his grandmother’s house either. Alex honestly doesn’t seem too fazed by much of anything to be quite honest.
While I was expecting some jank and a bare-bones plot, I was just shocked at how poorly the game was being presented, and although I was ready to give it a few points for lack of direction and the novelty of relying on your flashlight’s rechargeable batteries, it wasn’t until I eventually found a magical amulet that let me open mystical floating sigils that immersion was broken hard and fast.
I should clarify that there’s nothing wrong with creating games about old gods or mysticism; all the kids are doing it these days. That said, when you’re making a game that presents itself as a very gritty “Resident Evil 1” type experience and then suddenly drop in a magical glowing amulet that solves mystical puzzles and opens every lock, there’s going to be a little bit of shell shock. The confusion isn’t helped much by the rest of the game either, Alex reacts with such a barrage of apathy towards everything that it’s hard for the player to care much either. Even when faced with a creepy wooden doll enemy, Alex just sort of flatly says “Oh no, what is that,” a fairly tame response to what is, in theory, a life or death situation.
General problems aside, the game itself ran incredibly poorly, and while I’m willing to excuse a lot, there was such a large amount of crashes and glitches that it actively interfered with playing the game. When the game crashed two minutes in after I opened my first door and fell through the world, a developer came over to apologize and quickly reset my demo. When the game crashed for the second time, after I had opened another door only to hard crash the game, the developer quickly came over to, again apologize, and reset the entire demo PC. When the game crashed for the third and fourth time, after running into and dispatching the first enemy of the game, I quickly gave up any attempts to delve deeper.
Designing games is difficult, and the horror market has been incredibly competitive in the past few years, so I will absolutely not begrudge the developers about most technical problems. That said, it’s hard to wonder why so much money went into such a lavish booth, when the game itself was very clearly in its most alpha of forms. In the end I’m hoping that Colina Legacy will clean itself up when it’s eventually released later this year, but considering the alpha I played is apparently available for public consumption on Steam right now, I’m a little less than hopeful.
AWAY: JOURNEY TO THE UNEXPECTED
This game is good, this is a good game.
While I don’t know how deep Away will end up being when it’s fully released, I was having too much fun with my short time of it to really care. Set in a cartoonish 3D world, Away follows a kid living with their grandparents, who wakes up one day to find a massive hole dug into their basement wall. Armed with a stick given to them by a talking dog, they head off to figure out just why anyone would just make something like that.
The premise is simple, but the world itself is vibrant and full of character. While the environment is colorful and rendered in full 3D, the characters filling said world are incredibly detailed flat 2D sprites. The character art is reminiscent of what most people idealize early 90’s anime as looking like; a cross between a more chibi Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z. From the get-go, the characters themselves more than live up to their designs, with a half-baked wizard and a frog who lives in your toilet being the most memorable. Every character interaction presents you with a Persona 4 style dialogue box complete with choices of what you want to say (though choices seemed less impactful, and more for flavor).
The main gameplay loop was fairly simple: go through some caves, beat up some enemies, perform some light platforming, pull a switch to unlock gates. The most interesting mechanic actually came from the way the game handles party members. After asking the aforementioned half-baked wizard if I could borrow his staff, he joined my party, and I could switch to him to do a big fireball attack pretty much whenever I wanted. Although they were tied to a stamina bar, I was able to swap my characters to deal with any larger enemies that needed extra damage pretty much whenever I needed to. A particularly nice touch about the character change is that the Wizard had his own custom HUD based on his broken glasses, which made playing as him really feel like I was playing as a completely different character.
While the small caves you go through are randomly generated, the procedural generation feels much smarter than in other titles, with the well-fitting and detailed rooms injecting the exploration with a nostalgia for past 3D platforming games. When I finished my demo, the developer of the game (@aurelregard) came over to have a full conversation with me about what I had thought of the game. While I was obviously pretty positive, he was actively pushing me to give him some negative criticism, set on trying to improve the game more than anything. With that kind of developer, and the sheer quality of the demo I played, I’m incredibly excited to see what the full Away ends up looking like whenever it comes out, in his words: “Probably 2017, maybe 2018 eh? But probably 2017.”
ALL IN ALL
You’d be hard-pressed to find a convention much better than PAX East. The sheer amount of things you can see, the diversity in the panels being held, and the countless types of people you’ll run into all make the experience like no other. If you’ve ever been on the fence, or worried that it’ll just be a very “traditional gamer” experience, you shouldn’t fret, because PAX really does have something for everyone.