Posted on September 3, 2014 AT 11:45am
After the flurry of E3, San Diego Comic-Con, and Gamescom, one of the great parts of PAX Prime is that it gives us a chance to see something we don’t get to experience much of at those other events: the smaller indie titles. There were so many great games from lesser-known or smaller-budget teams and individuals at the show that we didn’t have time to see them all, but here’s a handful of some that stood out the most to us.
Developer: Defiant Development / Platform: Steam (Early Access), PS4 (2015)
Part roguelike, part action-adventure-RPG, part deck-building tabletop game, Hand of Fate takes place in a “cabin at the end of the world,” where you play a game of life or death against a powerful figure who holds your fate in his hands.
Instead of trudging through a typical dungeon, all of your adventures play out upon a table, where shuffled cards are placed face down and then turned over one at a time. These cards represent your journey through the world; some bring fortunes, some bring events where success or failure depend on which result card you draw, while others bring creatures and bosses to be vanquished. When those encounters pop up, you’re whisked away to third-person real-time action scenes, where combat takes some inspiration from the free-flowing combos of other offerings (such as the Batman Arkham franchise). While combat is a bit stiffer than I’d like, these scenes are interesting segments to what was overall a really unique experience. There’s a great mix of both randomness and pre-crafted storytelling, and what makes that all work is Hand of Fate’s presentation. While you may have seen all of the pieces at play here in other games before, how they’re brought together is what makes this one to keep an eye on. —Eric L. Patterson
Developer: Tic Toc Games / Platforms: Wii U, PC, Mac (XBLA and PS4 possible)
Pip is as small as it gets—a single red block. But he can harness some pretty potent powers to explore this retro-inspired side-scrolling universe, unleashing three different forms that each offer their own strengths and weaknesses. With his smallest body, he can squeeze into just about any passage. In his second transformation, which takes on the appearance of an 8-bit NES hero, he’s an agile fellow with wall-jumping abilities. And in his final, Super NES–styled incarnation, he wields a sword and can slice through foes, blocks, and stones.
If you enjoyed Yacht Club Games’ retro platformer, Shovel Knight, there’s the same pedigree at work here: Developer Tic Toc Games also has their roots at WayForward Technologies, and that old-school cred was clearly present the moment I picked up the controller. During most game demos, I’m trying to get a sense of which button does what and don’t really get comfortable until the end, but with Pip, everything came naturally, immediately, and smoothly—I didn’t even need to read most of the in-game help signposts in order to figure things out. Instead, I just intuitively knew what to do. And when the demo was over, I wanted more—a lot more. There’s no bombast or pretentiousness among these veteran developers with Contra 4 and Shantae: Risky’s Revenge to their names—they just want to make a good game, and this was the best one I played at PAX Prime. Adventures of Pip had an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign back in May, but the team says they’ve learned from that experience, and their relaunched effort, which runs through October 4th, is currently on track to meet its funding goal…and then some. —Andrew Fitch
Developer: Aurelien Regard Games / Platform: PC, Mac, Linux (Late 2014), Wii U (2015)
Arkedo co-founder Aurelien Regard strikes out on his own with a very unexpected premise: The Next Penelope, a futuristic racing combat game based around Greek mythology. You take up the role of Penelope as she searches the galaxy for her lost husband, Odysseus, which she does by racing around planets in her spaceship, beating (or destroying) anyone who tries to stop her.
As I sat down, Regard described the game as being for fans of Micro Machines and F-Zero. That is true—the top-down racing is reminiscent of the miniature cars-based franchise that because hugely popular in Europe, and many will see some inspirations taken from Nintendo’s future-styled racer in terms of how various elements work. The game is much more than a conglomeration of those franchises, though, and The Next Penelope sucked me in enough that I kept playing past my scheduled demo time. The fast-action racing and combat blend together exceptionally well, especially as you start to unlock the various weapons and power-ups that add new twists to races. The playable planets can be tackled in whatever order you choose, and beating a harder set of challenges early might be advantageous due to the upgrades you’ll unlock from doing so. The game isn’t just about laps around tracks, however, as I fought a handful of bosses that all required different strategies to defeat. Admittedly, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for top-down racers, but my excitement for The Last Penelope comes from the game not only being that, but also much more. —Eric L. Patterson
Developer: Kitfox Games / Platforms: PS4, PC, Mac (Vita version possible)
In a world inspired by the rich tapestry of ancient Mesopotamian myth, the moon suddenly fails to rise one night—and it’s up to you and up to four other players to uncover the mystery in this action-RPG from Kitfox Games.
Moon Hunters is less about clichéd stories of good versus evil and more about how a hero’s actions inspire their descendents in ages hence—think of the most famous Mesopotamian hero of them all, Gilgamesh, and his desire for his name to be remembered throughout time. The game’s world will be procedurally generated with each playthrough, and experimentation is absolutely encouraged among the five classes: the Witch, who wields powerful Blood magic; the Spellblade, a capable melee warrior; the Occultist, a long-range fighter skilled in the art of Shadow magic; the Druid, masters of Wild magic with the power to shapeshift; and the Songweaver, a support class that brings together each of the four elements through music. Creative director Tanya Short has extensive experience creating worlds as a senior designer on Age of Conan and The Secret World, and her team at Kitfox Games already has an established track record with the well-received PC/Mac roguelike Shattered Planet. Moon Hunters has reached its initial funding goal on Kickstarter, but the campaign will continue through September 26th. —Andrew Fitch
Developer: Ska Studios / Platforms: PS4, Vita (2015), Other platforms later
“Salt and Sanctuary casts you as a sailor shipwrecked on a strange, purgatorial island, insulated somehow against a backdrop of centuries-old worldwide perpetual war,” reads Ska Studios’ description of Salt and Sanctuary. “What hope remains is isolated in Sanctuaries: protected dwellings where travelers band together under common creeds to take shelter from the hostile world outside.”
It’s become popular to compare everything to Dark Souls these days, and that’s the comment I heard about Salt and Sanctuary before I had the chance to check it out. Sure, it’s got challenging gameplay, gothic themes, and medieval armaments in common with From Software’s series—and, much like the Souls games, Salt’s demo was not at all forthcoming with narrative or an explanation of what’s going on in its world, thus my reliance on the developer’s own words on the matter above. Still, outside of some obviously inspired elements, Salt almost reminds me more of the side-scrolling-adventure glory days of the 16-bit era. Ska Studios’ trademark art style produces a world that feels beautiful yet sinister, and even with the lack of a third dimension, I could already see a variety of ways in which the game set up a true sense of exploration and nonlinearity. Even though my time with Salt was short—partially due to the cruelty of one of the demo’s particularly nasty creatures—I’m already eager for more. Just, seriously—don’t call it Dark Souls: 2D Edition. —Eric L. Patterson
Developer: Question / Platforms: PC, Mac (console versions possible)
Jordan Thomas made a name for himself as an industry “fixer” who successfully helped pull together development on BioShock Infinite and South Park: The Stick of Truth—as well as doing an admirable job filling Ken Levine’s prominent shoes as BioShock 2’s creative director. With The Magic Circle, he’s helming a project that sounds like it’s hitting awfully close to home: putting the player inside a fictional game that’s been in development hell for an absurd 18 years.
We hear developers talk all the time about things like “feature creep” and other concepts that bloat the creative process, but you’ll get the chance to see what playing through that experience would actually be like here. The Magic Circle—which takes its title from the term for the “shield” that encloses a player in a virtual world—puts players inside a “still-in-development” puzzle-exploration game of the same name, armed only with elements like debug menus in order to succeed. Thomas, along with fellow BioShock veteran Stephen Alexander and Dishonored senior gameplay programmer Kain Shin, look to be crafting a game that will allow players to peek behind the development curtain while still remaining a thoroughly enjoyable quest. Oh, and if you think an 18-year development cycle sounds ridiculous, keep in mind that Duke Nukem Forever was in development for a solid 15 years—this is hardly a work of fiction! —Andrew Fitch
Developer: Turtle Sandbox / Platforms: PC, Mac (Steam Early Access)
When two kingdoms find themselves in close proximity to one another, they do the only thing that makes sense: try to conquer one another and take the other’s land. Cannon Brawl builds on this kind of idea, having players face off as they try to not only build up and strengthen their own forces, but also take down those of their opponent using a wide array of cannons, towers, fortifications, and units.
Cannon Brawl’s concept is simple—singular screen, two players on each side, build and attack tactics—but it’s the twists and personality that caught my eye while playing. Picking which resources you decide to take with you into each battle is a key element to success, not to mention a means of players to personalize their own specific playstyles. Speaking of choice, you’ll also choose which of the game’s cast of characters to play as—another important decision, since they each bring their own special abilities. This is a hardcore real-time strategy showdown in the guise of a more casual game, and it’s that combination of simplicity and depth that sets Cannon Brawl up as a platform for some fierce player-versus-player competition. But if that’s not your thing, the game will also have a solo campaign to let you enjoy the action. —Eric L. Patterson
Developer: Upper One Games / Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
In this strikingly atmospheric puzzle-platformer, a young Iñupiat girl named Nuna and her pal, an adorable arctic fox, set off on an adventure into the dark and mysterious Alaskan wilderness. The game also offers the option for co-op play as the girl and the fox, which makes for some intriguing two-person strategy.
This isn’t some collection of bearded, bespectacled San Francisco startup hipsters imagining what life might be like for the natives of the Arctic Circle. The development team at Seattle-based Upper One Games has actually worked closely with Iñupiat elders—even traveling to the Arctic in wintertime to get a sense of the most remote part of the United States and the almost alien world that comes to life there when the sun goes down. Art director Dima Veryovka told me he wouldn’t have been able to truly capture the beauty—and the danger—of the Alaskan wilderness if he hadn’t seen it firsthand. But he was also quick to note that while we might view such a trip as a vacation or a getaway, it’s a way of life for the Iñupiat natives. With that in mind, failure actually means something in Never Alone. When the fox misses a jump and plummets to his doom, Nuna collapses to her knees in anguish, imparting a sense of consequence and driving home the point that these aren’t invincible heroes—just a girl and her fluffy, white-coated friend. —Andrew Fitch
Developer: Amplitude / Platforms: Xbox One
After their escape ship crashes onto the planet Auriga, a handful of surviving criminals find themselves trapped in what seems to be an endless dungeon. In an attempt to find any hope of escape, they must survive what awaits in the dungeon, all while protecting a giant energy crystal from their ship that helps to power the dungeon’s facilities.
Working your way through randomly generated dungeons built from retro-inspired graphics is nowhere near a new concept at this point, but what Dungeon of the Endless does from there makes this a book that you can’t judge by its cover. The game plays out almost like a series of turns, where life in the dungeon doesn’t advance until you open a new door. Of course, you’ll never know what lies behind those doors, as you can find hordes of enemies, new resources, shopkeepers, or the exit to the next level. You’ll also run across additional members for your team, each of which can bring something new to your tactics. Speaking of those, Dungeon of the Endless has a level of tower-defense gameplay to it, where you can reinforce rooms to help defend yourself against whatever alien menaces you may come across. Of course, all of your exploration and deployed defenses hinge on power-resource management, since you’ll only be able to have a certain number of rooms active and operational at any one time. It’s these different elements—and more—that set Dungeon of the Endless apart for other similar efforts. —Eric L. Patterson
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