Another year of PAX West has come and gone. Big games and even bigger budgets all vied for attention, looking to entice onlookers with flashy booths. Massive screens, marquees, and posters proclaimed the presence of Spider-Man, Artifact, and plenty of other AAA titles. However, tucked away amongst the titans of the industry lay some of the more unassuming games. The indies at PAX West 2018 all shared one thing in common: they completely outclass the AAA lineup with their sheer creativity.
Between the Indie Megabooth and the 6th floor of the expo hall, there were over 100 different indies to sift through. While I couldn’t possibly cover all of them, the following ten are the ones that stood out the most.
Part Earthbound, part Paper Mario, and all kinds of wonderfully weird, YIIK (pronounced why-too-kay) embraces its neo-nostalgic aesthetic. It wears its “hipster JRPG” label loud and proud in hauntingly effervescent neon tones. YIIK‘s sense of style is simultaneously humorous and unsettling.
While the game carries many hallmarks of the JRPG genre (quaint towns, oddball NPCs, and menus galore), it’s different where it counts. YIIK follows eight strangers in the late 90s as they investigate the surreal, supernatural, and downright spooky. With a freaky-fresh style and addictive active battle system, YIIK promises an utterly unique and absolutely American JRPG experience.
World of Horror cemented ysbryd’s position as one of my favorite publishers. Inspired by the horror manga artist, Junji Ito, World of Horror dips into the edge of insanity. Players embark on a series of investigative journeys as they delve into grotesque, forbidden knowledges.
Combat is fairly straightforward and encompasses a standard set of mechanics like weapons, items, and spells. Where World of Horror truly shines is its utterly morbid aesthetic. The stark black and white tones transport you into a realm unbidden by time, sanity, or empathy. Developer “Panstasz” digs deep into your brain with this eerie title and refuses to let go.
Having played Necrobarista at last year’s PAX, I was curious what Route 59 would bring this time around. Where the previous build was ponderously moody, the game now feels light, airy, and dreamlike. Artist Ngoc Vu confirmed this as a new direction Necrobarista has taken with the story.
Whether or not that decision works for the better remains to be seen. What has not changed, however, is Route 59’s sense of style and flair. Where most people might get turned off by visual novels being too static and boring, Necorbarista is anything but. Sweeping camera movements and gorgeously lit shots take players on a whirlwind of text and dynamic visuals. If Wes Anderson was a weeby developer, this would be his game.
The Gardens Between proves just how creative gamedevs can get when given a limited number of tools. With only the control stick and a single button at their command, players will spend most of their time racking their brains for the solution.
In addition to its wistfully soft visual design, The Gardens Between draws players in through its unique premise. The flow of time is at your command. However, certain objects act outside of your temporal influence. As the game slowly introduces these mechanics, you figure out just how far bending time can make you think.
Ever wanted to feel like Samurai Jack? Bloodroots is your game. Its stark colors and strong geometric design come straight out of the Tartakovsky playbook. Yet this game is more than just a beautiful, deadly exterior.
Players control Mr. Wolf, a man out for revenge against the friends who betrayed him. The action never slows down as players jump from baddie to baddie, using anything and everything around them to reign bloody chaos on their foes. Ladder whirlwinds, runaway barrels, and carrots to the eye are just some of the lethal tools at Mr. Wolf’s disposal. Frantic button mashing madness still requires a keen eye, since players will be taken down in just one hit.
Fire up those thumbs, because Bloodroots will take them for a ride.
Okay, okay, hear me out. Even I had my reservations on this game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, doesn’t try to pretend it’s something it’s not. Even then, it aims to go beyond gimmicky VNs like Dream Daddy or Hatoful Boyfriend. It remembers one crucial detail: it remembers it’s a game.
Boyfriend Dungeon comprises two distinct segments: dungeon crawling and weapon dating. Similar to the Persona approach, your weapons grow in power as your bond with them strengthens. As a fairly polished dungeon crawler, it remains to be seen how a full relationship with a weapon will carry out. That said, the fact that I could write that sentence has me eagerly excited for this game.
Can I really sing more of this game’s praises? Sure I can. If you haven’t yet heard of Treadnauts, go grab some friends and get playing. Treadnauts is the mashup of classic artillery games with frantic arena-style movement. Players can choose to test their skills against one another or chill with a wide variety of game-changing items and settings.
Of the couch-multiplayer games at the Indie Megabooth, Treadnauts was by and far the most entertaining to watch. The tug-of-war between players vying for the top of the scoreboard never ceased to amuse. It caters to the casual, competitive, and everybody in-between. If Topstitch knows anything, it’s how to make people have fun.
This might very well be The Stanley Parable of golf-based satirical games. An exclusive category, to be sure. What the Golf? treads the line between gimmicky and challenging, but never stops being fun. It takes the core concept of golf and runs with it: get thing into hole. That’s it.
How it executes that changes from level to level. One moment you’re literally trying to flip a house. Another, you’re suddenly playing Superhot, launching your character from place to place as you trade shots in bullet time with your opponents. What the Golf? seems heavily dependent on its level design to take full advantage of the gimmick, so hopefully, Triband delivers with ample amounts of content.
Move over Obsidian, we’ve got some new RPG devs on the come up. Disco Elysium immediately strikes the eye with its vivid, painterly quality. Streaks and swathes of color flesh out a dreary landscape that players awaken into, devoid of memories. They must gradually unravel the mystery of who they are as they delve into the grimy, grungy world around them.
Disco Elysium plays like many of the great TRPGs to come before them. You control your character through isometric environments as you interact with NPCs, chase down leads, and complete quests. Much like its predecessors, Disco Elysium presents a wide variety of options and paths for the player to take. With its utterly captivating art style and eerie universe, the game hits hard where it counts for an RPG.
On the exact opposite end of Disco Elysium‘s presentation lies Stone Story RPG. Calling its ASCII art style “simplistic”, however, would do it a grave injustice. Stone Story boasts an impressive set of environments, animations, and assets, all based on the DOS-era terminal aesthetic.
Its gameplay also lies between simple and robust. Described by the developer as “Diablo without the action”, Stone Story takes away the nitty-gritty of ability-spamming and button-mashing. Instead, it asks players to focus on the larger picture. It still is, at its heart, an RPG. Behind the impressive visuals, Stone Story remains an adventure where you get gear, fight monsters, and travel the world.
Indies as Far as the Eye Can See
With over 70 games by just as many talented developers, it’d be impossible to cover them all. That’s only counting what was at the Indie Megabooth. Indies littered the expo halls, from Devolver’s massive booth to ysbryd’s cozy little setup in the middle of the sixth floor. One thing’s for certain: AAA may have the money, but indies have the heart.