I typically go to a lot of panels at Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) East, but this year relatively few of the offerings interested me (and some of the interesting ones were on simultaneously). So, I spent a lot of time on the show floor. The only major publisher I really visited was Ubisoft, where I learned that Might & Magic X will be coming this year and has a huge, wasteful UI. I spent most of the rest of my time in the Indie Megabooth and environs, both because this is a more efficient use of time and you're more likely to actually see the games and talk to somebody interesting there.
Of course, almost none of the games I saw were in their final forms. Promised features may be removed, many bugs will be fixed, and gameplay may be tightened up and improved before these hit the market for real. Still, just in case my preliminary judgments might be helpful to you, here are some of them.
One of the games being advertised on screens around the center was McDroid, which I learned was a tower-defense game about a pirate strawberry farming robot defending his stolen crop from mutant insects. The robot can put turret weapons onto predetermined bases or mount them on its back to make itself into a mobile battle platform. Between fighting off the critters and making sure to gather strawberries, the wave-based levels got to be super-hectic, and will be even more so with the planned 4 player co-op. The game looked lovely and had a great sense of humor. The developers are targeting PC, Mac, and Linux releases—a playable version is available on Desura now but they are hoping for some Greenlight votes.
One of the most striking games I saw was Contrast, a 3D/2D puzzle platformer that's about two months away from release on Steam. The main character can move around and solve puzzles using some fairly standard 3D puzzle-platforming. However, wherever there are shadows, she can slip into shadow form to use them for 2D platforming. Switching back and forth seamlessly looks like it will be an important way to approach the game's challenges. As expected from a game about shadow, there was a heavy noir influence in the art style. It was a little brown, but the muted colors served the aesthetic, and the gameplay looks to be really interesting. I'm looking forward to it.
In the more 2D mode of puzzle-platforming I ran into The Swapper, a game where the player creates clones and swaps into these bodies in order to move around the environment. Even in the early level I saw there were many clever ways of using these multiple bodies, although seeing four copies of a dude running around a screen got a little freaky. To avoid an undue influence from twitch, the game slows down while the player is aiming, although this didn't keep it from being a bit tricky to pull of swaps at times. This game also has a distinct look, which a developer told me was achieved by building models out of clay and other materials and then inserting photographs of them into the game. This sounds like a lot of work, but it achieved a level of texture in the environments that isn't always achieved. This one is also about two months away from a Steam release.
I also ran into some less cerebral platformers, including Shovel Knight, a game being targeted for Nintendo platforms and PC (it is currently on Greenlight, and there is a Kickstarter). As the premise (yes, it really is a knight armed with a shovel) suggests, this is a lighthearted game, and the developers are mainly focused on getting the action tight. As you might guess from the 16-bit aesthetic and the gameplay style, the game is built from influences like Zelda II and Mega Man, although I was also reminded of DuckTales by the way the protagonist pogoes off of the ground and enemies. I appreciated the goofy concept and the grin-inducing enemies, and the controls were tight.
I also got my hands on Guacamelee, a lucha libre-inspired game with a distinctive cartoon art style. Given the wrestling backdrop, it shouldn't be a surprise that the usual punches and kicks mostly serve as a way to set up kills based on grappling. There's a world-switching mechanic where some enemies and obstacles only appear in one or the other world. This felt underdone and disconnected from the other systems in the level I was able to play. The level was also undermined by a much too on-the-nose Mario reference and the fact that all the dialogue was addressed only to the male half of the co-op team that was playing. Overall, Guacamelee doesn't feel super original, but I enjoyed playing it and the art style appealed to me. This should be coming this spring via PlayStation Network (PSN).
I had a good time with Super Time Force, a game from Capybara coming to Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) later this year. It's a clever little pixel-art game that plays somewhat like the bizarre love child of Contra and Braid. The player has an arsenal of characters he can use to take on levels that last 60 seconds apiece and end with a boss. At any point, the player can rewind time and continue playing again, with the same character or a new one. Critically, when this happens, the ghost of the previous playthrough still appears and still does everything it did before. This means that if a character dies (easy enough, since they go down in one hit) the player can go back, get another character and use that one to save the first. Moreover, the player can get multiple copies of a character on the same screen in order to launch lots of attacks at a boss. When this happens the screen can get insanely hectic. Obviously this is going to be a pretty difficult game, but it's a blast, and players will get a lot of mileage out of trying to optimize their level times.
MechKnight Chronicles: Knightfall is almost all combat, primarily influenced by Knights of the Round and Guardian Heroes. A combo-driven hack 'n' slash for 1-4 players, Knightfall is planned to have levels that are "webbed," where the player can choose (and switch between) various routes that have effects on subsequent scenes. The plan currently is to have 10 playable characters with various fighting styles. The art was pleasantly chunky and colorful, the controls were nice and tight, so I'm feeling optimistic about this one. My understanding is that Knightfall will be coming to PSN, and the developers are hoping to get on Greenlight soon. Depending on how that goes there may be a Kickstarter.
I also ran into a number of intriguing roguelikes on the show floor. The standout here has to be Legend of Dungeon, a pixel-art dungeon delver with local multiplayer. This is a game that has some really interesting ideas going on, including procedurally-generated music that's assembled from 18 tracks based on what you're encountering at the moment. I was also intrigued by the game's mechanic for trailblazing, which is needed because the game's structure involves going to the lowest level of its dungeon and then climbing back out. The aesthetics and gameplay seem very promising. It's currently in pre-beta, with availability planned for PC, Mac and Linux, with possible Android or Ouya appearances down the line. A Greenlight campaign is underway.
I saw a less traditional experience in the form of Tower of Guns, a one-man show by ex-38 Studios developer Joe Mirabelle. This game is a roguelike first-person shooter (FPS) coming for PC "before Thief comes out," according to its creator. It's not a standard FPS: each playthrough uses a single, quirky gun and there's no ammo management. The player can collect items that level up the gun, and getting damaged levels it down. So, there are some interesting mechanics at play, although the color palette is a little too brown for my taste. It's on Greenlight now.
The developer of Delver's Drop pitched it as a blend of Spelunky and Zelda, which seems fair enough, if staggeringly ambitious. The player drops through various levels of a randomly-generated dungeon that features combat and some relatively simple puzzles. I noticed a number of little things in the design that spoke to an effort to develop a coherent world, which I appreciated, and the game was colorful without abandoning its dungeon aesthetic. I was told that in the final version, characters who die will remain in the game for the next playthrough as undead versions of themselves, which is an interesting twist on the tradition of finding your corpse. It's on Greenlight now, coming in October for PC, Mac, and Linux, with iOS, Android, and Ouya on the table for 2014.
Speaking of the undead, I ran into two non-awful games featuring zombies. Ray's the Dead is a Pikmin-like strategy game of collecting and dispatching various types of zombies to consume a town. I heard different things from the developers about when it would be ready, but the controls still need some work so the Halloween date I heard sounds a little optimistic. The scenario is, of course, rather gruesome, but a cutesy art style keeps things lighthearted. As you might have guessed, the game is on Greenlight, and there may be a Kickstarter so they can enhance the audio.
Zombie Tycoon II is a real-time strategy-lite where the player will use a mobile base spawning zombies and other creatures to take over a town's buildings in the face of opposition from soldiers and rednecks. There will also be a vs. multiplayer option. I liked the aesthetic and the approach to upgrades, but I felt like the balance needs a little tweaking and some of the controls are not to my liking. This is coming to PSN sometime this year.
Although I'm not generally a tablet gamer, I was intrigued by Colliding Forces, a strategy game that seems to have been strongly influenced by air hockey. On each turn a player gets a few actions to create, move, or upgrade pucks with various abilities. The controls were smooth and intuitive, and the abilities came with some interesting trade-offs. This is coming to iOS soon and Android eventually.
I had a few moments with Dejobaan's Drop that beat like an ugly baby, which plays out like a fusion of Audiosurf and another Dejobaan game. The player drops through 3D levels that are generated in response to a player-selected audio track, the objects passing by to run up the score. Success makes the world more colorful, and running into objects grays it out, though the game doesn't force you to restart a song or anything. I enjoyed it, though I'm not sure it could really sustain a play session. If you want to experiment, it's out now as an early access game on Steam.
Tiny Brains is 1-4P puzzle game that will definitely work best in 4P mode. It centers around a group of lab animals, each of which has a unique physics-based power. Players have to work together to solve the game's environmental puzzles—for instance, an early challenge requires one player to create a small wall, another to push it across a gap, and a third to teleport by swapping places with the wall. Thinking as one person it's sort of trivial to solve, but with four people trying to communicate to each other it could be pretty fun. This game has been created pretty rapidly by some ex-Ubisoft guys, and release plans are not firm yet, but keep it in your tiny mind.
I caught up with Nathan Fouts of Mommy's Best Games, who is hoping to bring the extra content of Serious Sam: Double D XXL to Steam sometime this year. Mommy's Best Games also has a party game called Pig Eat Ball, which is about pigs eating balls and then possibly barfing them back up, coming to Ouya and possibly Xbox Live Indie Games this summer.
The last game I toyed around with at the show was Race the Sun, a game about dodging obstacles in a high-speed vehicle. The gameplay and the graphics are both minimalist, but the game does an excellent job of conveying a sense of speed. The game will come with a level editor, and the developers are also hoping to implement a form of asynchronous relay multiplayer. The game can be pre-ordered now for a May release on PC, Mac, and Linux. It's also on Greenlight at the moment. Other platforms may be coming.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.