Note from the authors: While they didn’t quite make the list below, we’d like to give a shout out to a few other titles that were no less awesome. Symphony of the Machine, Mallow Drops, Goat Punks, Blockpocalypse, and Rearmed With Wings.
It seems that I have an annoyingly bad habit of cursing games that I like the look of whenever I go to PAX Australia. The Division? Fell so hard on its face that it’s only just now starting to pick itself back up off the floor in the vain hopes of a late revival. Battlecry? Disappeared from existence entirely, and I don’t think we’ll ever see it again. Battleborn? Let’s… Let’s just not go there. Indeed, any Triple-A game seems doomed to fail if I show it the slightest amount of interest at PAX. That’s why this year, with more than a few big name titles being shown off and getting ready to roll, I stuck to the indie “PAX Rising” area of the expo floor. In fact, it seems that all of us did, and neither Nick, Ellis, nor myself were disappointed with that decision. In no particular order, save for the last entry – the “crown prince(ss)” of PAX Aus, if you will – these are our top ten picks from this year’s offerings!
Being only vaguely familiar with the original game, I was drawn to Hand of Fate 2 by the allure of an independent, single-player, digital collectable card game. However, what my 15 minutes hands-on with the pre-alpha PAX demo delivered was a text adventure meets Dungeons and Dragons with tarot cards and real-time 3D combat. Ok, so it is officially a hybrid roguelike/ action-RPG/ deck builder… either way, so much cooler than what I had anticipated. Yes, this is a deck building game at its core, but the way that the cards manifest into in-game locations, characters or situations, is brilliant.
Players select one of the 22 challenges that the game offers and then craft their deck to overcome the unique obstacles that challenge presents. For example, in the “Death” challenge, there is an assassin that will strike with a magical arrow that deals 110 damage and never misses. So players should enter this challenge with a deck that facilitates an increase to max health. Cards from the deck are randomly dealt to the table, and the player chooses to reveal them one by one a la Tarot card reading. The fortune-teller style dealer explains what the card means, and what situation has played out (think text adventure), then the player must make decisions and sometimes a dice roll (think D&D).
When battles ensue, the game moves from text and cards representing equipment to 3D combat in a small arena. Now the soldiers you recruited and the equipment cards in your hand materialise as actual comrades and weapons to fight with. Controls for combat are relatively simple and easy to execute. However, if you didn’t prepare properly, the combat itself can be quite challenging. This game is all about preparation and strategy. And in my mind, it is the perfect marriage between a card game and an RPG adventure, played out digitally.
When you apply for a media pass for PAX AUS, you have the option to receive information from developers and publishers who are exhibiting at the event. If you tick that box, you have to be prepared to spend the next month sifting through the dozens of press releases that flood your inbox on a daily basis. Amongst the sea of assertions that I was reading about the best game ever created, a very simple message about an iOS puzzle game based on paper folding piqued my interest. Curious, I scheduled an interview at PAX with the lone developer of the game, Katie Huang of Studio Flip.
Qinoto is a puzzle/ hidden object game in which players swipe, rotate and drag the scene on their iOS screen to fold the game world like paper and create new objects or patterns in the scene. The puzzles relate directly to progressing the storyline, which is centred around the journey of Qinoto, an anthropomorphic fox trying to find her identity in a fantasy world filled with other animals. The game is currently in pre-alpha with only 5 puzzles and 5-10 minutes of gameplay, so the plot is not well-developed at this stage… however, the innovative puzzles and mechanics had me hooked. In creating the game, Huang was inspired by MAD fold-ins and Scott Kim word puzzles. Even the Qinoto logo is a puzzle- when folded inwards, it turns into the word ‘fold’. It’s the perfect blend between the paper-folding puzzles of old, and multi-touch digital technology. This is the kind of game that the touch tablets of the modern day have been missing, and I can’t help but wish that Qinoto had existed when the PS Vita was a thing.
Huang expects to release Qinoto on iOS in the next two years. If that two years brings additional puzzles in each scene, dependent puzzles, some red herring “solutions,” and a fleshed out story, Qinoto will definitely find its way into my app library!
I was drawn to Loveshack’s Framed 2 at PAX Rising because of the atmosphere around the display. Where other games had people yelling, mashing controllers, or running into walls (in the case of VR), Framed 2 had a crowd of people staring at screens, arms crossed, brows furrowed, some scratching their chins, all looking pensive. What they all appeared to be contemplating was a page from a digital comic book. As soon as I saw one player slide one of the comic book panels to the left, changing the order of the scenes, and thus altering the progression of the story and the character within it, I knew I had to play.
Framed began as a thought experiment. Rather than play with a set of actions like players normally would in a game, the team at Loveshack asked: what would happen if players manipulated the *context* an action happened in instead? The game plays out like an animated comic book, with each puzzle represented by a page with anywhere from 2-6 frames. It is your job to change the order of the scenes so that the protagonist can move through the story unscathed. The mechanics are novel (pun definitely intended), the art exudes film noir, the animation is slick, and the jazz score immerses you in the setting. What else is cool is that the entire story is told through images and puzzle solving- exposition unnecessary.
The PAX demo that I sat down with was the most polished of any game. Framed earned a plethora of awards, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Framed 2 does as well when it is released in early 2017.
There wasn’t anything quite like Kieru anywhere else at PAX. Another entry from last year, Kieru is all about using the environment to conceal yourself before pounding on your enemies. The walls are black or white, and you play as a ninja adorned in one of the two contrasting colours. So, in order to find your enemies, you need to venture out into areas that will expose you, lest you risk being found from an unlucky angle. Much like Siegecraft, there have been some interesting additions to the game from last year.
You’re a ninja, and the devs have finally added in the movement mechanics to let you go full Tenchu on your enemies. You can run up and jump off walls now, so if you’re in the mood to outrun your opponent, you have plenty more avenues of escape to utilise. You can also climb up walls too, which I accidentally abused and reached the top point of the level to find my enemies. The other big addition is the ability to teleport short distances.
Ninjas are masters of reappearing a couple metres away, everyone knows this, but there was a disappointing lack of blink mechanics last year. This problem has since been rectified. Combat is a lot more frantic when you don’t know when or how an enemy will engage or disengage you, and that felt great. Hit and run tactics felt just as satisfying as biding your time, and teleportation means you can always be hidden as you seek out your next target. Fundamentally, Kieru is a great idea with great execution, so keep your eyes on it!
There’s nothing quite like an indie game that’s willing to twist conventions of a genre, especially if it’s an RTS. Siegecraft is just that game, and even though I saw it last year, the game was still a stand out for me. The unique mechanic of the game is needing to build in order to attack, so games will involve flinging buildings at your opponent to block off where they can expand. Walls join up each building, so there’s a trade-off between expanding out before the enemy and staying close to keep everything well defended. This year, though, there were some fancy additions.
The biggest development was the inclusion of a campaign mode. While this may sound disappointing on the surface, it brings with it the inclusion of heroes. Each hero gives buffs to certain areas of warfare, such as troop hardiness or magical power. A campaign also offers the promise of a story, and we all know how good Warcraft’s story is (but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet). The other big development of the game was bringing it to VR.
Despite my reservations about VR, I can’t help but applaud the Blowfish team for giving the medium a shot. The game is identical to its non-VR friend, but everything feels more like it’s on a board than a sprawling landscape. The feeling of playing with miniature lizard-men has its appeal, and after a few minutes with the remotes, the controls weren’t just a tacked on gimmick for the hell of it. Cool mechanics and interesting developments kept Siegecraft in my mind past PAX, and I’m looking forward to it when it finally releases!
Well hot darnations with a slack ah ol’ fella in heat, this game shouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it is. Made by graduates of Torrens University’s Media Design School from the Hobbiton lands of NZ, Sky Noon easily rivals games of veteran indies in almost every way. Players try to push each other off the edge of a Wild West meteor, but you can use grappling hooks and jetpacks to stay on and get around faster. The design is downright addictive, and the execution is about as slick as it gets.
From a gameplay standpoint, Sky Noon plays smoother than a wet horse in a ragtime saloon. The controls were tight, responsive and intuitive, and the pace of the game hit the sweet spot between speed and chaos. I’d be hit off the edge, hook onto the edge of the stage and swing back around until I eventually looped back onto the other side, then I’d take my revenge on the little spitball that thought they bested me. Having a fun game is one thing, but having a good looking game is even better for a student game.
The visuals in the game were remarkable. These weren’t AAA graphics by any stretch, but they suited the game so well. There was never any clutter on the screen or needless particle effects, just clean visual information presented in a way that was easy to take in. Sky Noon put some of the games in the indie arcade to shame, because, hey, what right do students have to make a game this good in such a short amount of time!? It’s almost embarrassing to think that I only found out about the game when a Perth dev yelled at me to check it out. Easily one of the best games at PAX, Sky Noon’s creators will undoubtedly go on to do great things. Good work, NZ.
You’re met with multiple paths as you enter the PAX Australia expo floor, however, two in particular are dominating your attention. To your left is a forty minute (minimum) wait in line for a shot at the Horizon Zero Dawn demo, one you’re not even sure if you can play, or if it’s just another demonstration video. To your right is the PAX Rising area, and in its midst you see a familiar title, something that reaches deep into your childhood nostalgia: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Which direction do you take?
Pffft, right, obvs.
You approach the booth, hastily pawing at the controller waiting on the tabletop lest anyone else try to get in your way. You think that a child might be upset that you quickly dashed ahead of them but you’re barely paying attention to external stimuli at this point. Memories of hunching over a book, pencil and dice in hand, swirl around inside your head; you pick the barbarian with two swords because shit yeah, dual wielding is awesome. The tutorial begins, a grid appearing on-screen, and your barbarian (the awesomely named Arran Gottspeed) is faced with some training dummies. It’s at this point that you realise that the dice and counting combat system of the book has been replaced with a tactical, grid-based fighting system.
Trudging your way through the dungeon, you don’t just throw caution to the wind, but suplex the wind entirely while simultaneously shaming its entire family. This is but a short playthrough after all, and unrelenting, perilous, hilariously overwhelming danger means nothing at all to you. Some of the scenarios, the tales being told, are familiar to you and others are not. The nearby game master (or “developer,” as he called himself) would later inform you that some additions have been made on top of the original material from the book. This single-player RPG that once ensnared your young mind for many a year has just gotten bigger and better.
The rocky walls and winding paths give way to an Orc training room, and it’s here that you meet your grisly end, battling the nasty greenskins until you’re impaled upon their blade. Returning to the character select screen, you notice something that you didn’t before: an option that says “next group.” Cycling over, you find that there are a whole bunch unlockable characters, including a Rhino warrior.
Wait, I can play as a Rhino warrior?
By the way, the crystal maze is procedurally generated.
…… Son of a–
I didn’t get to play this one for very long, but it made such an impression that it’s now firmly affixed to my radar of upcoming releases. Ticket to Earth developers Robot Circus have blended turn-based strategy combat with puzzler elements, and while I’m not normally a fan of the latter I am way into the former. Set on a planet that’s been mined to literal planetary death, the rich and powerful are leaving on giant, luxurious ships, while everyone else is left behind to deal with the brewing Mad Maxian scenario. The player takes control of four different heroes (of which I only got to play three during my time with the game), each with their own stories to tell, and goals to achieve.
The narrative concept, and world itself are nothing hugely unique – it evokes thoughts of Borderlands, Mad Max, Wasteland, among many others that have gone for an “apocalyptic” vibe. Where it differs is how the movement and attack mechanics work, which are delightful, and refreshing. You’ve got your standard grid formation for the battle to take place on, but each square has a different colour, with some kind of boost assigned to each colour. Your movement isn’t determined by your stats, but by the longest chain of same-coloured tiles that you can reach, and every tile stepped on builds up attacks associated with that colour. The strategy isn’t just in finding cover, flanking the enemy, and killing everyone, the game demands that success be obtained through constantly move around, in ways that may be unconventional.
Playing the game felt very intuitive; though the Robot Circus guys were on-hand to assist people during the playthroughs, I almost felt immediately comfortable with the controls and what was happening. Granted, I play turn-based strategy games a lot, but it’s simple enough that it could be easily learned by someone who has never touched the genre before. For those who read my stuff regularly, you’ll know I’m pretty into the post-apocalypse, or apocalypse-in-progress narrative genres, so Ticket To Earth already had something of a headstart in vying for my affections. That being said, this is one to keep an eye out for, regardless of what you usually fancy in a game.
BrambleLash has featured on this site a bunch of times already; GameCloud, and myself in particular, have been following its development for quite awhile now. It’s been a long road and we’ve seen a few iterations of the game, learning about the process for its development, and getting to know all about the bitter rivalry between Sam or Liam. Personally, I’d put my money on Sam, because I’m a fan of dark horses. They’re at the end of a long road now, however, and the game is just about ready to be released, with what was effectively the final version being on display at PAX Aus. When I spoke with them at PGF last month, they told me that, while quite ruthless, I wasn’t the most treachorous player they’d ever seen. I spent some time at PAX convincing them otherwise. Ever seen someone win a game of BrambleLash purely by destroying others, including my “teammates?” Because I have. I’ve done it.
Despite my unique desire to destroy everyone and everything, BrambleLash is actually a game about balance, not just outright killing everything in sight. Forging alliances, even brief ones, and then figuring out when to literally cut the cord is what the design of this game is about. The fact that it’s so open to constant betrayal is what makes it appeal to me personally, but I can appreciate a game that incorporates some amount of disloyalty into its core design. Moreover, watching people play this game is simply a treat. The pained, disbelieving groans and shouting of friends, or strangers, suddenly dropping one another in the deep end for a quick leg up is like music to my ears.
It’s come a long way from the first time I played it, visually, mechanically, and in the new content that’s been added. It’s one of the finest examples of Perth indie development going, and the boys at ByteSprite deserve to be congratulated.
Imagine that you’ve entered a carnival cart ride, the rickety cart rattling along the tracks while garrish, stereotypically patriotic, American decorations loom over you in the near darkness. When your path ahead becomes too dark to see exactly what’s coming, only then will a fanfare of horns and exploding confetti herald the lights being turned on. This process repeats itself a few times, and all the while a disembodied, Andre Ryan-esque voice speaks to you about how America can be made great with the simple proliferation of firearms. Not for war, oh no, but as tools for creation, for work, for feeding infants, and as an all-around MacGuyver-like tool of universal function. The cart trembles to a sudden halt, the lights come on, and sitting in front of you is a dog that introduces itself as Buddy Washington, your tour guide, through the speaker quite obviously hanging from its mouth. This is but the beginning of The American Dream.
I’ve personally not been sold on VR, the latest technology being heralded as the “future of gaming,” and that’s because of the offerings put forward so far. The majority of titles being flogged on Steam, and other places, being giant turret sections, bizarre and pointless simulators, or other designs already tired by regular gaming standards. It’s games like The American Dream, however, that make me think the faith placed in VR isn’t entirely misplaced, since what I played is less of a game as it was an experience. The term “walking simulator” gets thrown around a lot, and often in a derivative fashion, however, The American Dream does a lot to show how much VR can do for this sub-genre of games.
The demo we got a chance to play at PAX Aus was but a vertical slice, casting the player as a baby using guns to summon their mothers, who’d then use guns to feed you. Not long after, you’re transferred to a factory where you blow the holes in bagels with a gun, while shooting the “defective” bagels-to-be with baked-in vermin off of the conveyor belt. After speaking with developer Winston Tang, I learned that the game will follow the life of a single individual in this world where guns are used for absolutely everything. Buddy Washington, of course, always on-hand to talk you through the entire experience. And that’s what this game feels like it’s going to be – a wholly unique, chuckle-inducing experience, made possible only by VR. (And the demented minds of Samurai Punk, of course.)
As mentioned in the intro, the games on this list are in no particular order but we could all agree that, above all others, The American Dream was the game of the show. Well done, Samurai Punk… Now, can anyone spare about a grand so I can buy a VR headset?