GDC 2015 featured a cavalcade of great indie titles—as it does every year. In an effort to get a taste of as many of these games as possible, previews and reviews editor Ray Carsillo and managing editor Andrew Fitch divided up and conquered the show as best they could.
After probably 40 to 50 cups of coffee between them and some much-needed recovery time this past weekend, they’ve put together their list of some of the best indie showings from this year’s Game Developers Conference.
The concept is simple and hardly something we’d expect from a game: A blind girl has lost her cat. How the game unfolds, however, is an intriguing take on navigation and puzzle-solving. Since the girl gets around by recognizing sounds around her and “converting” them into images, this can make for an interesting test—for example, is that bubbling water coming from a fountain or a hose? Developer Sherida Halatoe did research and spoke with blind people in order to make that gameplay feel as authentic as possible. “Experimental” forms of gaming navigation don’t always work for me, but I liked how Beyond Eyes handled it. It’s beautiful and thought-provoking without feeling like a gimmick. —Andrew Fitch
Seeing this game immediately made me think of the many times the BBC’s Top Gear used cars to play soccer, since that’s this game’s concept at its core. Playable locally but with plans for more potential online, Rocket League sticks players in a futuristic arena where they use cars to knock a giant ball into an opponent’s goal. Speed boosts, the ability to jump, and even being able to drive straight up the arena’s vertical boundaries allow the action to get truly hectic at times, and anyone with even the slightest bit of competitiveness nature will likely take quickly to the game. —Ray Carsillo
I admire the passion of Jake Kazdal and the others at Kyoto-based 17-BIT, but their last game, the goofy (in a good way) strategy title Skulls of the Shogun, didn’t do much for me, unfortunately. Galak-Z: The Dimensional, on the other hand, looks like it absolutely will. The game’s inspired by the late-’70s, early-’80s anime and manga, particular the seminal works of Leiji Matsumoto like Star Blazers and Galaxy Express 999. The music, designed to match the cadence of battle, adds appropriate atmosphere as well. But it’s the combat that will make or break this space roguelike, and Galak-Z’s impressive mechanics look to make this a standout shooter. —Andrew Fitch
Continuing their south-of-the-border flair from Guacamelee!, the folks at DrinkBox Studios are doing their best to remind gamers that there are some reasons to own a Vita after all. Severed strikes me as a first-person Metroidvania, since the action focuses on moving from room to room as a young girl with a sword who aims to avenge her fallen family. Along the way, a variety of powers will allow you to backtrack and unlock new items and pathways as you continue on your quest for vengeance. My only worry about Severed? You must continuously swipe the Vita’s touchscreen to attack, which could be a gimmick that gets old quickly. —Ray Carsillo
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of authenticity in game development—and Through the Woods is perhaps the best example of that I saw at GDC. Norway-based developer Antagonist is infusing its deliberate horror title with Norse mythology, but you won’t find preening Chris Hemsworth and his bulging pecs or Tom Hiddleston mugging for the camera here. Instead, you’ll find actual tales, legends, and even perhaps monsters found in Scandinavian myth, which makes for an awesomely atmospheric trip through the Norwegian woods. This is a bit more disturbing than the tale John Lennon had to tell. —Andrew Fitch
If blasting forward at insane speeds along a linear track à la Trials is your jam, then FutureGrind is right in your wheelhouse. In this racer, you ride on a futuristic bike with two different-colored wheels, but there’s a twist: Each wheel can only touch tracks of a corresponding color—unless you happen across a white portion of the track, which banks a high-score multiplayer you build up by doing stunts and tricks in mid-air. Each subsequent track becomes more difficult as gaps get larger, the colors change faster, and additional track obstacles appear. Though it sounds difficult, you’ll quickly feel the burn as crashing becomes a lot more common than successful runs. I only wish a track editor and different vehicles were in the plans, too. —Ray Carsillo
This watercolor-styled adventure sure looks a lot like a game you’d find from Ubisoft Montpellier—and there’s a reason for that. Half of developer Swing Swing Submarine includes vets from the create Rayman studio and have personally worked with the legendary Michel Ancel himself. There’s a lot of the limbless French wonder to be found in Seasons After Fall, but the game also distinguishes itself admirably. As a hopping red fox with the power to change the seasons—and, thus, the in-game terrain—at will, you’ll need to rescue all the Guardians of the Seasons to restore balance to nature. —Andrew Fitch
Do you have a GamePad, a Wiimote, a Pro Controller, or even just a Nunchuk? If it’s been used on either of Nintendo’s past two systems, then you can partake in the nine-person multiplayer havoc that Runbow promotes. The main mode sees nine different avatars try to make their way through a series of obstacle courses and be the first to get to the finish line. The world is constantly changing, though—specifically, in regards to its color—causing platforms of the same pigment to disappear, often making for some difficult jumping action. And if you have less than nine players, don’t fear. Several game modes support fewer players, such as Color Master mode, where one player uses the GamePad to control the obstacles and tries to prevent anyone from winning the race. I’m not a fan of party games, but I couldn’t help but instantly love Runbow. —Ray Carsillo
The Flame in the Flood is proof that there’s just something in the DNA of the dearly departed Irrational Games that appeals to me at a basic level. I stumbled upon the game at the ID@Xbox indie event at GDC, located in a warehouse somewhere rather out of the way in San Francisco. For some reason, I hadn’t heard of the game or the developer—odd, since I’ve been following the Irrational diaspora with considerable interest. But the moment I saw The Flame in the Flood and its striking visuals, I stopped in my tracks. Helmed by BioShock and BioShock Infinite art director Scott Sinclair, this procedurally generated survival adventure hooked me even after the game unexpectedly crashed. And while I think procedural generation is getting overused, it totally makes sense in a game like this. The whole point of exploring somewhere new is that you shouldn’t know what’s coming, right? —Andrew Fitch
I couldn’t get enough of Cuphead—they had to pry the controller out of my hands. The art style is a throwback to the Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoons of old and was done without any digital assets. Much like those beloved cartoons, everything in Cuphead was lovingly hand-drawn—unlike those classic animated features, however, it was all then scanned into computers. While the game looks amazing, it’s the action that kept me playing. Described by the developers as a “reverse Contra”, Cuphead focuses mostly on boss battles and less on side-scrolling shooter action, but it’s a 2D-shooter that’ll push your reflexes to the breaking point again and again. I was impressed that something inspired by so much old media could feel so damn new. —Ray Carsillo
Reflections is a Myers-Briggs test in game form. Every action you take in the game builds up to a different outcome based on your life choices. So, for example, if you cultivate relationships, you’ll see that reflected in how the game unfolds, while if you ignore humans and head off to the wilderness, you might end up living in a log cabin. It’s a little rough around the edges, but there’s a ton of potential in narrative experimentation and exploration here. I mean, people already take all those dumb Facebook tests already—why not play an actual game that psychoanalyzes you? —Andrew Fitch
Rounds of Pixel Galaxy are often pretty quick—this is because the game is impossibly difficult on even most of the easier settings. An arcade shooter that focuses on gameplay over graphics, Pixel Galaxy sees players control a single square that cannot defend itself except by the power of magnetism. By colliding with other squares in the arena, you can attach and convert these more offensive-minded blocks into weapons until you’ve built a ship that can act as a force to be reckoned with. Constantly sacrificing and attaching new parts is critical as levels progress before a near-screen-filling boss appears. As long as that original block survives, though, the game will continue. It was hard for me not to say “just one more round” after finding out firsthand just how hard it was to survive in a sea of squares trying to shoot me down. —Ray Carsillo
The voice of The Witcher’s Geralt of Rivia as a hard-boiled noir protagonist in a game developed by an indie team based in Barcelona? It sounds like a game of GDC Mad Libs, but it’s an actual offering I saw at The Mix event last week, where several industry tastemakers could be seen mingling among the crowd. According to developer A Crowd of Monsters, Blues and Bullets will distinguish itself from similar fare like Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire with a more focused, episodic style, and the game mixes in action and decision-making portions to keep the experience feeling fresh. —Andrew Fitch