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The Hidden Gems of PAX East 2014

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Posted on April 17, 2014 AT 04:25pm

While surprisingly light on mainstream titles beyond Evolve, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, The Evil Within, and The Crew, this year’s PAX East played host to a veritable treasure trove of indie delights, with small teams of passionate developers from all around the globe (and sometimes just one brave lone wolf) congregating in Boston to show off the labor of their efforts (in varying degrees of progress) to press and public alike. Here are just a few of the standout indie titles Chris and Eric had the pleasure of seeing while wandering about the show floor.

Darkest Dungeon
Developer: Red Hook Studios | Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux

What it’s about?

“A supernatural tale of greed, ruin and redemption sets the stage for your adventures,” reads the official description of Darkest Dungeon. “Return to the poisoned remains of your ancestral estate and wrestle it free from the grip of a timeless evil unwittingly unleashed by your long-lost patriarch. Throughout your adventures, you will learn about the lands your family once called home, and uncover the awful truths that lurk in forbidden places.”

What sets it apart?

The reasons I relied on Red Hook Studios’ official description of their project is that I kept getting too eager to spoil what enthralled me about Darkest Dungeon. Though I was initially drawn in thanks to the game’s gorgeous art style, the real catch here is the main premise: dealing with the stress of being an adventurer. So many games have sent countless bands of heroes off to perform near-impossible tasks, but almost none have asked what emotional and mental toll that would take on those men and women. Everything that happens while delving into dungeons will affect your party in some way, causing its various members to “get stressed out, develop phobias, proclivities, and other emotional baggage” according to the developer. It’s an attempt to remind players that those on-screen warriors are still human—and if it’s done right, it could be an absolutely fascinating twist on the RPG genre.   –Eric L. Patterson


High Strangeness
Developer: Barnyard Intelligence | Platforms: PC, “Other Platforms”

What it’s about?

High Strangeness tells the story of a young-ish, bandana-wearing hipster named Boyd on the verge of moving. But before he can pack that last box, his cat mysteriously vanishes. And then demons attack. And then his cat starts talking to him. Before Boyd knows it, he’s thrust into some great conflict between good and evil.

What sets it apart?

OK, so indie games with a retro aesthetic and either 8- or 16-bit graphics (or ones inspired by those eras) are a dime a dozen. But how about one with both 8- and 16-bit graphics? That’s the big hook to Steve Jenkins’ High Strangeness. In the 16-bit world, his offbeat RPG plays a lot like, say, Secret of Mana. The 8-bit world, on the other hand, is unabashedly inspired by the Zelda that started it all. The two play off one another in a light world/dark world sort of way, and only by juggling between these two versions of the game’s reality can players discover secrets solutions to puzzles in order to progress.   –Chris Holzworth


Treachery in Beatdown City
Developer: Nuchallenger | Platforms: PS Vita, PC, Mac

What it’s about?

President Barak Orama has been kidnapped in the city of East Fulton by the Ninja Dragon Terrorists, and it’s up to three fighters—Bruce Maxell, who mixes lightweight martial arts with aerobic and dance-based strikes, Lisa, the MMA/boxing fighter who is also a cop-in-training, and Brad, the heavyweight former professional wrestler—to save him.

What sets it apart?

While it initially looks like a retro throwback inspired by the days of Double Dragon, Treachery in Beatdown City brings a unique approach to combat. Attacking and defending is all done via menu-selected options, giving the game the feel of a classic arcade beat ‘em up infused with turn-based RPG elements. Initially, you’ll only be able to string together a few simply attacks, but as the game progresses, you can make use of more powerful maneuvers, throws, and combos. Still, you have to retain at least some action-oriented strategy, as where you’re at in relation to your opponent and how far away from them you are will be important.   –Eric L. Patterson


Fenix Rage
Developer: Green Lava Studios | Platforms: PC, Next-Gen Consoles (TBA)

What it’s about?

Fenix, whatever carapace-d creature he may be, is one of two survivors from a destroyed villager. The other, named Oktarus, may hold the answers to their village’s demise, but much to Fenix’s fury (I guess I should have written “rage,”) Oktarus flees from Fenix at every turn, leading our titular hero through chases across the game’s various stages.

What sets it apart?

When someone sends you an e-mail comparing their game to Super Meat Boy, the natural reaction is to approach with caution. Boy was I surprised to discover that Fenix Rage is deserving of that association, audacious as it may seem. Like Team Meat’s smash hit, levels in Fenix Rage are quite small and highly replayable, the controls appropriately tight for the split-second navigation advanced stages seem to demand. I almost missed my next PAX East appointment trying and retrying and retrying and retrying one stage in dogged determination to best it. In short: Fenix Rage hooks and hooks hard.  –Chris Holzworth


Kero Blaster
Developer: Studio Pixel | Platforms: PC

What it’s about?

Coming from the mind of Japanese developer Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya—the creator of the cult classic Cave StoryKero Blaster is a quirky yet charming tale of an adventuring frog who works for the C&F Corporation. Doing the bidding of your boss (who, naturally, is a cat), you set out to battle an invasion by a strange race of black creatures across a wide array of 2D stages that will require fast thinking, perfect platforming, and quick wits.

What sets it apart?

Kero Blaster‘s concept and gameplay seem very simply at their core, feeling very reminiscent of the 8-bit era that Pixel’s visual design choices also harken back to. And, for me, that was what I found most appealing. It’s easy to make a game that looks and plays old-school, but very difficult to do so while finding that perfect balance between simplicity and satisfaction. From its weapon choices to its stage design to its cast of unique characters, Kero Blaster seems to have the heart and soul of a game pieced together in the heyday of the Famicom – not a modern-era project trying to ape that style. My only regret is that I won’t be able to pick up Kero Blaster on one of those classic grey cartridges and play it the way it’s truly meant to be played.   –Eric L. Patterson


Invisible, Inc.
Developer: Klei Entertainment | Platforms: Windows PC

What it’s about?

The latest from Klei Entertainment, developers of Shank and Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve, represents another sharp turn in style and genre. In Invisible, Inc. players are thrust into the shady world of cyberpunk espionage, tasked with infiltrating the headquarters of weapons-manufacturing corporations to steal their secrets and get out unseen.

What sets it apart?

Invisible, Inc. has two standout components, one superficial and one at the heart of its being: a 1960’s-meets-cyberpunk aesthetic (replete with Deckard-dressed spies kickin’ it alongside robot companions) and deep, engaging turn-based stealth. As designer Jason Dreger described it to me, the team labels the their latest project a “tactical espionage” game because secrecy and stealth are the core tenets, not action. Enemies in Invisible, Inc. are much more powerful than the player, deal way more damage, and outnumber them considerably. Invisible, Inc. all but forces you to play smart, and as a roguelike, will see many trial-and-error failures. But getting the slip on such vastly superior opponents only makes success feel all the more rewarding as a result.   –Chris Holzworth


Chroma Squad
Developer: Behold Studios | Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PS3, PS Vita, PC, Mac, Linux

What it’s about?

Based around the world of Japanese super sentai TV shows—stuff like what we got here in the States as Power RangersChroma Squad is a turn-based strategy game where you must guide a team of teenager heroes to victory over a wide array of terrifying alien creatures.

What sets it apart?

Going into Chroma Squad, I knew it had the interesting premise of being a strategy RPG based around sentai fandom. What I didn’t know is that the entire game is based around the filming and producing of such shows. When not in the midst of the grid-based battles—taking place between actors either pre- or post-transformation and people in rubber monster outfits in front of in-studio green screens or out on location—players will need to manage budgets, create props for the show, hire (or fire) actors, choose marketing strategies, and otherwise make decisions that’ll keep your show bringing in the viewers. Chroma Squad is part SRPG, part business sim, and entirely unique.   –Eric L. Patterson


Secret Ponchos
Developer: Switchblade Monkeys | Platforms: PC, PS4

What it’s about?

Secret Ponchos is an online multiplayer game set against a Wild West backdrop inspired by graphic novel art styles. No single-player modes, no chaff—developer Switchblade Monkeys wanted to create a combat game that appealed to both ends of the skill spectrum so that those just entering the fray could have just as much fun as those who master its surprisingly complex, deeper layers.

What sets it apart?

Don’t call it a MOBA! This perspective’s been here before! Needless LL Cool J references aside, to dismiss Secret Ponchos as a MOBA at first glance would no doubt ruffle creative director Yousef Mapara’s feathers, and understandably so. After spending enough time to give each of the game’ six playable outlaws a spin, I found myself subscribing to Mapara’s assertions that Secret Ponchos has much more in line with a fighting game than anything else. Said outlaws each boast about eight moves each, give or take, that can be juggled in a variety of combo-stringing ways that would make any Street Fighter veteran feel at home.    –Chris Holzworth


Always Sometimes Monsters
Developer: Vagabond Dog | Platforms: PC

What it’s about?

Eschewing far-off fantasy worlds or sci-fi scenarios, Always Sometimes Monsters is a modern-era RPG where you’ve got thirty days to travel from one coast of the United States to the other in hopes of stopping your true love from marrying someone else. The journey, however, won’t be a simple one—as the road to the West coast will be paved with tough choices and scenarios that will put your morals to the test.

What sets it apart?

I’ll be honest – when I first walked by and caught a quick glance at Always Sometimes Monsters, I wrote it off as just another homage to retro RPGs. When I finally tried it, I then found out that I was quite wrong in that assumption. The game is a look into how we humans interact with one another, and the ramifications of those interactions. Playing the PAX East demo, the options for choosing my character and love interest were randomized—leaving me as a Hispanic female who found herself in a same-sex relationship with a fellow college student (who was black). And yet, situations like those aren’t treated a “special” in the game—they’re just one of the countless ways finding (and losing) love can be portrayed. Always Sometimes Monsters reminds more quite a bit of Corpse Party; this looks to be an experience where simple visuals and gameplay hide an immense amount of emotional and mental depth.   –Eric L. Patterson


Galak-Z: The Dimensional
Developer: 17-Bit | Platforms: PS4, Vita

What it’s about?

Inspired by the likes of Macross (particularly Ichiro Itano’s “Itano Circus” missile trail art style) and other space-faring anime gems from the ‘70’s and 80’s, Galak-Z puts players in the jumpsuit of a United Earth Navy space fighter pilot. Each one of his procedurally generated, roguelike adventures are likened to an “episode,” with no two episodes exactly alike.

What sets it apart?

Roguelikes seem to be all the rage in the indie community right now, and while it’s fair to say the market’s a tad too flush with them, Galak-Z distances itself from other games reliant on procedurally generated levels by eschewing the pull of gravity based platforming in favor of the wide open range of movement afforded in space. And once in your hands, the exploration-driven shooter’s complexities become quickly apparent. There’s a thrill to the finesse necessarily to agilely navigate the labyrinthian space-based stages, not to mention doing so while juking and evading enemy fire and letting loose missile volleys of your own.   –Chris Holzworth

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