PAX West 2018 is the largest videogame convention on the West coast, and it just took place in Seattle from August 31-September 3.
I was on the floor for all four days, and there were so many new games to see that it took most of that time just to cover the exhibition hall – no time for panels or free-play on classic consoles! However, it was time well-spent since there was no shortage of great-looking projects on display, and it’s always great to catch up with developers and PR reps who are only in town once a year.
If I had to pick a recurring theme that might be a good one to sum up the show, it very well could be “stamina-based combat”. It was painfully obvious that every developer who’s fan of Dark Souls had something to show this year, and all of them were eager to not be called a soulslike – hence the new term. Fair enough, I guess.
Anyway, I was originally going to do a top ten of the show, but there just too many things and so much would be left out that I wouldn’t feel like I was doing the show justice, so I’m instead going to do a day-by-day narrative of what I saw. However, even with this extended format, there are still dozens of games that aren’t going to be mentioned… Apologies to those that didn’t make the cut, but I’m only human!
Things began on a high note with Starlink: Battle for Atlas. It was the first game I saw walking into the hall, instead of plowing into the floor like I usually do, I just stood there and watched the entire demo. I have to admit that I didn’t expect anything from this game — I spent a fortune on Skylanders and my house is still clogged with them as they gather dust, so I wasn’t too excited about another toys-to-life idea. But, I have to admit that watching the game in action sold me. I’ve heard several people describe it as No Man’s Sky With Stuff To Actually Do, and I’ll be damned if that isn’t exactly what it looks like. The demo featured a spaceship that was put together in front of our eyes consisting of a pilot, a hull, and a couple of guns attached. The person running the demo switched things out in real time and it all worked seamlessly. Completely changing the body of the ship or what guns were attached was as simple as removing and adding a piece.
The demo began in space, and it was said that the player could fly at-will between different worlds in the galaxy. Then the ship went straight down towards the nearest planet and was able to fly around in the atmosphere before coming down into a “hover“ mode on the ground. There were enemies to shoot, and the demo ended with a giant boss fight that demonstrated how nimble the ship was — it was constantly dashing and shooting, and the entire thing looked action-packed. This wasn’t on my radar before the show, but it sure is now. TRAILER
Below from Capy Games was back again after making its first appearance four-ish (!!!) years ago. Apparently this overhead-camera dungeon-crawl roguelike is very close to release now, which is great news since it was 50% of the reason I bought an Xbox One in the first place. (D4 from Swery 65 was the other 50%.) It’s looking good after all that beauty sleep though, and Capy is a studio that I have much faith in. I’m just as excited for this now as I was back then. WEBSITE
After that, I moved onto the Unties booth (pronounced un-ties, like you’re untying a shoe) which is apparently some sort of Sony subsidiary. However, not only are they are cherrypicking small Japanese games and making them available on PS4, they’re also bringing them to PC, Switch and Xbox. It’s an interesting project, and their initial lineup looks good.
The highlights for me were Olija and The Good Life, from Swery 65. (See a theme here?) Seems like this label is going to be one to watch.
New studio Outer Loop has a neat-looking title in Falcon Age. This story of people pushing back against robotic colonizers happens through a first-person perspective with a character who has a pet hawk capable of cool, birdy things. According to the rep at the booth, some actual falconers gave the game a try at the show and gave it their seal of approval! Available in both VR and flat flavors. TRAILER
Avalanche Studios (the devs behind Mad Max, Just Cause, and more) are releasing a new mid-list title called Generation Zero. In this game a group of friends return from a camping trip to find that everyone on the mainland has disappeared, and the only ‘life’ left to be seen comes in the form of hostile robots. It’s up to the player and up to three friends to figure out what’s going on in this adventure which should be retailing for about $40. TRAILER
Dark Souls fans will definitely want to check out Hellpoint. My brief time with the game suggested soulslike mechanics with a sort of Dead Space necro-futuristic vibe. Co-op is the order of the day here, and while it’s possible to play solo, the developers want folks to work together on this one. The art style was great, and the boss encounter on display was unique — it was a large meditating figure who used its glowing astral form to strike. Pretty neat. TRAILER
Heading over to the indie megabooth (always awesome!) I was immediately drawn to a pair of great-looking games sat right next to each other. The first was Tales of the Neon Sea, a detective-oriented point-and-click with a great art style that comes from the same publisher who put out the superb Candleman. It’s a totally different game with an entirely different focus, but I’m interested in checking out anything these people bring. TRAILER
The other game was Far: Lone Sails. This minimalistic experience featured a character who inherits a mysterious vehicle. When he goes inside, the exterior of the craft cuts away to show an “ant farm“ view of the inside, and part of the game is learning how the vehicle works and how to pilot it. Once sussed, the player drives it across the bed of an evaporated ocean to explore the land and figure out what’s going on. The visuals here were incredibly gripping, and I was curious to find out more — there’s something very compelling about the idea of trying to work with a mysterious machine while on a quest for answers. TRAILER
There were also a couple of small-scale RPGs that caught my eye at the IMB. The first one was called Stone Story RPG, and the ASCII art really caught my attention. I wasn’t able to play it at the time but it seemed to be a lend of clicker play with actual RPG elements. I wanna learn more. TRAILER
The other one was called Get In The Car, Loser!, and was billed as a lesbian road trip RPG. Not sure what else needs to be said about that, but it looks like a winner with an incredibly colorful and attractive visual style. The dialogue sequences I saw were plentiful, and the humorous banter with a pinch of salt gave a great sense of the characters. WEBSITE
A new trend I noticed were projects billed as 3D Visual Novels. The first was called Solace State. The presentation was great, with a strong sense of artistry and a camera that paned throughout the environments in a dynamic way uncommon to most VNs. Naturally, there are also a number of choices and outcomes based on how the player responds to situations — in this particular one, much of the plot is about community, civics and involvement. TRAILER.
Along the same lines, structurally, was Necrobarista. Lots of text and a panning camera in 3D environments, but this time the plot is about a coffee jockey who can raise the dead. TRAILER
It’s not often that I come across a game that seems destined to become an instant cult classic, but Boyfriend Dungeon seems to fit that bill. This top-down dungeon crawler looks cute enough, but the hook is that each weapon that the player has is also a character which can be “dated“ in order to increase its effectiveness and strengthen the bond between weapon and user. I mean, you can DATE YOUR WEAPONS. What else do you need to know? TRAILER
Moving on to bigger-budget productions, I took a good look at the upcoming Hitman 2, and it seems like more of the same — great news, because Hitman 2016 was excellent. The devs promise better, more appropriate accents (because, yikes, that was a problem), there’s a new picture-in-picture mode to let players know when something important is going on, Agent 47 can now blend in crowds (long overdue!) and the biggest change is that the entire game is getting released at once, rather than episodically like last time. TRAILER
I saw Biomutant last year, and I have to say, I wasn’t too impressed. It looked fine, but somewhat forgettable. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to make an appointment to see it this year but I did anyway, and I’m glad that I did — the team has obviously been very busy, and the game is now looking impressive and exciting. The player takes control of a small furry creature whose body can take different forms depending on its stats and abilities. This beast set loose into and open-world area. Although there are story beats and themes that will be consistent, many aspects will be randomized in order to give players variety — but don’t worry, it’s not a roguelike! There are also large number of vehicles and travel options including mech suits, submarines, airships, and more. TRAILER
Darksiders 3 was also on display, and it’s looking good. Although the devs say that it’s splitting the difference between the more Zelda-like action of the first game and the Diablo-like loot and sidequests of the second, the demo suggested a lot of exploring the environment and partaking in fast action. Now that War and Death have both had their turns, Fury takes center stage — her main weapon is a spiked whip and she’s apparently more of a spellcaster than her brothers are. TRAILER
Rounding out the first day was the worst thing that I saw at the show overall. Being someone who works with Deaf and disabled people, I curious to see more about The Quiet Man. Now that I’ve seen more, I have no idea at all why anyone would want to make this or spend money on it. The main character has apparently lost his hearing somehow, but does not appear to be culturally Deaf — he does no sign language, and in general walks around without communicating or showing facial affect at all. Did he somehow lose his humanity as well as his hearing? Presentation-wise, it’s absolutely baffling. The sound of the game is muted and reduced to strange musical tones, and the start of the demo was an extended live action cutscene of the main character watching a singer in a club. Yes, actual live actors. Then it transitioned into some rough-looking graphics where a simplistic beat-’em-up happened — the camera was totally unable to keep the action on screen, and it felt like a clunky mess. More than anything, it could pass as a second attempt at The Bouncer from the year 2000 thanks to huge portions of watching punctuated by a little bit of playing here and there. While I was only exposed to a very brief demo, what I’ve seen so far looks embarrassingly bad and deeply misguided. TRAILER
The first thing I saw was a new “action RPG“ called Breach, which is apparently coming to beta soon and will eventually launch with a free-to-play model on PC and consoles. The structure of it reminded me of Raiders of the Broken Planet in some ways — both games feature a team of characters who go out on brief, discrete missions and grind for loot. They both also feature the option to have another player be an enemy who’s trying to stop the main group from accomplishing their goals. The visual style was nice enough, but gameplay was dull and uninspired, and I’m not convinced that the basic idea of repeating missions for loot will have the legs needed to carry it. TRAILER
Next, I took a look at Torchlight Frontiers. I was pretty surprised to hear that it was in the works considering that the original developer is no longer in existence, but there’s a new team comprised of Torchlight vets and a large number of Diablo vets, and that pedigree shows. The graphics are bright and colorful, there’s lots of customization, and they’ve got the absolute right idea about overall game design — the world will go out in several branches, each being a different story. Players can tackle them in any order, and gear earned in one branch will be less effective in another, giving players great motivation to really dig into each new area while never feeling too OP and bored. There are also hooks in place for future areas to be added, so it seems like Perfect World Entertainment has primed this one to go the distance. TRAILER
One of the other games on display from Perfect World was Remnant: From The Ashes, and it looks like another winner. Although playable by one person, it’s designed for easy co-op between 2 to 4 players and features dark, gritty action in a 1960s alter-earth where demons invade. Interestingly, although the main story will be the same for everyone, it’s reported that there will be a fair bit of randomization in enemies and levels, giving players varied experiences although essentially going through the same sections of the campaign — an interesting concept seen in other titles this year. TRAILER
Devolver Digital had a strong showing this year, although that’s not much of a surprise. Although I don’t dig every title they put out, there’s no denying that they have a vision and a personality, and they hit more often than they miss. The first thing I saw was Gato Roboto — an adorable black and white pixel-based metroidvania where a little cat pilots a mech suit. The little furball is also able to get out to traverse small passages or to accomplish certain tasks, so it’s got a bit of Blaster Master DNA in there as well. TRAILER
Also at Devolver was My Friend Pedro, and it was just my favorite sort of bizarre. It’s hard to describe what it is exactly, but imagine a loose-limbed assassin spinning and gyrating his way through levels, spraying bullets everywhere and talking to an imaginary banana. The animation is really something else! TRAILER
One that got a lot of attention was Gris, an experiential arti-house title which sports jaw-dropping animation and equally impactful music. There’s no dialogue in the game, so players are meant to take it in, absorb their time with it and figure out for themselves what it means. However, putting any potential message aside, just watching the main character jump and flow across the screen was magnificent. TRAILER
Things started off strong with a quick trip up to Thunderful booth. This new house is made up of some smaller studios that are now functioning as a Voltron unit, and the star of the current lineup is Lonely Mountains: Downhill. This pleasingly low-poly mountain biking game features an overhead camera that allows for greater visibility as the rider rolls down treacherous paths. There’s always at least one clear course through an area, but as one might expect in a game like this, there are plenty of shortcuts that can be taken if the player has the skill. This definitely had that “just one more run“ feeling, and it seems like it will be a perfect fit on the Switch. I loved this one! TRAILER
It has been years and years and years in the making, but Pig Eat Ball made a return trip to the show, and it’s almost ready for prime time! As anyone who reads GameCritics or has listened to the GC podcast over the years knows, I’m a huge fan of Nathan Fouts over at Mommy’s Best Games, and this seems like another one that’s unmistakably his. What’s it about? Well, in multiplayer there’s a pig that goes around eating balls, it pukes them up when another pig bites its tail, and crazy stuff happens… There’s also a full campaign in which I assume things get even crazier. If you’re familiar with Nathan‘s work, then you know you want more. TRAILER
Something that I am really, really interested in is Overland. It’s a turn-based strategy game, but seems to also have roguelike elements. In the section I played, the player seems to be a normal person caught in the middle of an alien invasion. However, instead of fighting back with guns and ‘tude, they’re just trying to survive. The first level was about meeting a fellow survivor and then finding gas for her car. Everything was done in turn-based fashion, and we exited the level when one person pushed the dumpster out of the way to clear a path for the car. In the next section, one character went to get more gas, while the other rescued them with a drive-by when aliens got too close. I’m quite fascinated by the type of action and tone in this one, and the minimalist graphics were also a huge plus. TRAILER (From last year — wasn’t able to get an updated one.)
Untitled Goose Game was on display among the indies of the sixth floor, and the crowd around it was huge. It’s easy to see why — it looks like an absolute riot. Each level features a certain number of objectives the player can complete as they see fit, but basically it boils down to taking control of a goose and acting like a complete dick, which, of course, seems absolutely marvelous. TRAILER
The Polish megabooth was back again this year, and it’s one of my favorite spots. The developers always have something really interesting to say, and their approach to gaming is quite different from those America or Japan. Chatting with those folks is always amazing. As far as what I saw, Ritual was one that was far, far from being done but still quite interesting. It’s a top-down defensive game where a man is escorting a girl who’s possessed. During the day, he has limited time to run around and gather resources to fortify whatever structure they’re staying in, and when night falls, the demon inside the girl comes out. While the player is trying to defend her from outside attackers, she’s inside producing random effects — sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful. FACEBOOK PAGE
Also worth a mention is Electrix. This one is a Kickstarter that got funded and is now being polished up and fleshed out. The player sits in a virtual workshop and disassembles, repairs, and restores a wide variety of real-world technology — iPhones, vintage consoles, and more. This is already cool enough but the developers had another layer to reveal. Apparently, the character who does the repairs is sort of a conspiracy theorist and an X-Filesish story unravels via messages he decodes through his work. TRAILER
When I heard Dying Light was going to be at PAX I was expecting the sequel to the open-world zombie-killer that I had a blast with in 2015. But no, instead I was treated to a surprise — Dying Light: Bad Blood. Instead of being a sequel it’s actually a Battle Royale mode using the parkour and melee mechanics of the core game with a few twists thrown in. Instead of 100 players there are only 12, and in the game mode that I saw, players had to collect zombie samples before making it to an escape helicopter. If going after the samples directly, players have to to fight off zombies in specific hotspots, but there are other strategies as well — in the match that I watched, one player avoided all the zombies and spent their time collecting weapons. Then, when another player collected the samples and came in for the escape, they were assassinated before boarding and the guy who hung back got an easy win. While Fortnite seems to be the current top dog in the BR genre, I’m curious to see different interpretations of the formula, especially with a melee focus.
The last things I saw on the floor on Day 3 were at the Annapurna booth, and much like Devolver, they’re a great boutique with a good eye for content. Ashen was another ‘stamina-based open world combat’ title (read: soulslike) but one way it stood out was its focus on creating positive, anonymous interaction. While the player is exploring, they might come across other people wandering the expansive, bleak environments. They can choose to join them and help out with what they’re doing, or they can continue on their way. However, there are no PVP mechanics or invasions, so people don’t need to worry about being attacked or surprised. It reminded me a bit of Journey, but with swords. TRAILER
Moving on to the other side of the booth, I took a look at Outer Wilds, and I’m glad that I did. I watched a trailer a while ago and it seemed to be some sort of physics spaceflight game, and that is part of it, but there’s actually so much more that wasn’t captured in the video. Essentially, it’s a version of Groundhog Day or Majora’s Mask set in space, and on top of that, the devs have created a complete solar system with real physics. Gravity affects everything in the proper way, inertia and mass must be accounted for, and the player can get to any place they can see whether it’s over the next mountain or past the stars above. In this setting, players have 22 real-time minutes to figure out whatever they can before they’re reset back to the beginning. However, the goal is that they will gain knowledge on every run and be able to get further on the next, eventually unlocking the secrets around them. TRAILER
Finally, I’m always on the lookout for a good cooperative title, and Gelly Break looks like it’ll fit the bill. While the visuals were fairly standard, the fun of it revealed itself once I had a controller in hand. Although fully playable by a single person, it shines with a partner because the stars are two little jelly creatures, one green and one orange. They can each hop and bop on their own, but the twist is that they’re able to stack themselves on top of each other. The one on the bottom controls mobility, and the one on the top becomes a turret. As a combined unit it takes teamwork to navigate the levels which rapidly ramp up in intensity. Additionally, there are platforms that require the right color jelly to be the one jumping on top of them. If an orange jelly tries to land on a green platform, he’ll fall through and the players will have to start over. As such, it will take some fast fingers to keep the color-swapping happening. The devs say that the late game can require a fair amount of skill, and for those who crave even more of a challenge, there’s a hard mode that totally remixes all of the areas to really put a pair of players to the test. TRAILER
…And that’s my report from the floor of PAX West 2018. It was a great show with fantastic people and fantastic games, and I’m looking forward to doing it all again in 2019! Thanks for reading, and feel free to leave comments and questions below. Want more PAX info? Check out the So Videogames podcast tab at the top of the page – we’ll have a special episode dedicated to the expo soon!