PAX East has become a genuine wonderland for indie games, my friends. I know some developers don't like the word "indie" thrown at them, and for that I apologize. To me, indie means small and unconventional when it comes to gaming. That's my definition right now, though I'm certain it will change in the coming months and years.
Finding something called the "Indie Megabooth," an awesome organization that's self-described as "a collection of independent game developers all banding together to bring you the latest and greatest indie games at PAX," is like discovering an oasis in a desert.
The water in that metaphor consists of wonderful independent games that come without the weight of design by committee, appealing to what publishers think the masses want and being restricted to an overused IP. Indie games at shows like PAX East are a breath of fresh air, and they serve as some of the most refreshing content you'll find at any convention.
The desert? While it's not all bad, the stuff big publishers are putting out has grown stale because it all serves the points that I just listed above. It appeals to the most common among us, not that that's a problem; but, the games they show off have become highly predictable, almost to a fault.
I salute the indie games at PAX East every year, and 2014 was particularly wonderful. I picked out a few of my favorites to share with you, but I promise almost everything that was on the showfloor is well worth your attention. The stuff at the Indie Megabooth and the Indie Minibooth in particular was amazing, though other great small games were found beyond those confines.
Nevertheless, these are some of my favorite indie games from PAX East 2014.
A Hat in Time | Gears For Breakfast | PC
What happens when a 3D platformer takes on the collecting and action gameplay we're all familiar with from the Nintendo 64 era and slaps it below a unique look reminiscent of titles like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker? A Hat in Time happens, and it's looking wonderful.
A Hat in Time started life visibly as a Kickstarter last year. It was funded on June 28th, 2013, and it's been in development ever since. This PAX East marks the first time I've ever seen it in person.
And, guess what? Gears For Breakfast made what they promised they'd make: a gorgeous platformer inspired by the games of yesteryear.
Every level in the game is built around a different theme. The one I saw at PAX featured gameplay inside a haunted mansion.
The build was super early, as was noted on the bottom of the screen, and there's still work to be done. What I did play was exciting and fun, though.
Below | Capybara Games | Xbox One, PC
If mood, music, visuals and tough but fair difficulty are qualities of a video game that you really seek out, you might want to pay special attention to Below. This currently Xbox One and PC exclusive is being developed by Capybara Games with music from the great Jim Guthrie.
I met Mr. Guthrie at the show, by the way. We talked about his time on NPR for a Tiny Desk Concert. He's a cool dude.
You might know that pair already from their other fantastic effort, Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. They're collaborating again, and Below is the result.
Below is a single player adventure game all about exploration, survival and discovery. It's a roguelike, which means permanent death and tough difficulty.
The PAX East demo represents the beginning of the game. You arrive on an island, lost and confused, and you have only a sword and shield to defend yourself. As you explore, you unveil darkened areas of the island and you'll tangle with unknown creatures. You'll also die. A lot.
There's no set release date for Below yet, but it's coming to the Xbox One and PC first.
Crypt of the NecroDancer | Brace Yourself Games | PC
Crypt of the NecroDancer was one of the few games at PAX East that I stood and watched for a very long time without getting a chance to actually play. It's absurd, and it's mesmerizing. Basically, it's exactly what I want from a nerdy video game.
Imagine a roguelike dungeon crawler with oldschool graphics. Good? Now, you can control this dungeon crawler with a keyboard or gamepad. That's fine. Or, you can control it with a DDR mat. Did I mention it's rhythm-based?
Watching folks play Crypt of the NecroDancer at PAX East was awesome. I wanted to take a crack in between meetings, but everytime I walked by I found a gaggle of wannabe gamers in between me and those silly, silly DDR mats.
It looks ridiculous, and I really want to play it. Badly. It drops this year for the PC.
Darkest Dungeon | Red Hook Studios | PC
Our own Ron Duwell did an interview with the folks from Red Hook Studios a little while back for Darkest Dungeon. They were in the midst of their successful Kickstarter campaign at the time, and I know Ron was super pumped for the game.
I can confirm that his excitement seems to be worthwhile. This interesting roguelike dungeon crawler certainly has it where it counts in the visuals department.
Of course, the interesting catch with Darkest Dungeon is the Affliction mechanic. Your characters are susceptible to stress. If they reach their breaking point, and they will, they might snap through abuse or depression. That means they might not behave the way you want them to, thus turning an already tough game into one that approaches unmanageable.
As its name would imply, Darkest Dungeon looks like a dark and maddening time. We're fans of the genre, and the unique mechanics and look are really pulling us into this one.
The game is set to release in early 2015, though you can pre-order it here and even pay a little extra for early access later this year.
Delver's Drop | Pixelscopic | PC, Mobile, Ouya
When Delver's Drop completed its successful Kickstarter game in March of 2013, we were excited. The interesting game combined the visual aesthetic of A Link to the Past with an action RPG sensibility and a unique take on dungeons.
On the show floor this year at PAX East, the title commanded a constant host of onlookers. Delver's Drop is a head-turner, the kind that works through instantly recognizable rewarding gameplay.
Tons of enemies, challenging gameplay and awesome dungeons. Yep, we're already sold on this one.
Delver's Drop is coming to PC in the middle of this year, and it's hitting other platforms towards the back half of 2014.
Dungeon of the Endless | Amplitude Studios | PC
Brace yourself, because I'm gonna throw some genre names at you right now that might sound a little convoluted. Dungeon of the Endless is a pixel-art roguelike dungeon-crawler dungeon-defense game, and it is awesome.
What a mouthful.
As I learned during my super brief time with the title on the PAX East showfloor, Dungeon of the Endless starts as your ship crash lands into a subterranean environment. You must explore the space while dropping lights, building defenses and earning resources to continue.
What's especially interesting about this game is that once you find a dark room or the floor's exit, things get intense. Dark rooms spawn monsters, so finding them creates problems. Your hero (or heroes) can fight against the beasts, but you'll want to set up as many defense systems as you can to do the dirty work for you.
Once you find the exit, you have to grab your ships crystal and run to the door. When you grab it, the dungeon loses power and monsters spawn like crazy. It becomes a race to live.
The game is intense and difficult, and you can support Amplitude Studios now by getting it in Early Access form if you like.
FRACT OSC | Phosfiend Systems | PC
Since my time with FRACT OSC at PAX East, it's become my morning coffee ritual. Granted, I've only had two days to turn this "just happened once" thing into a "ritual," but still.
It's a musical exploration and puzzle game. You're dropped in an environment that's blisteringly neon but devoid of music. You walk about the space at your own leisure, going wherever you like without very much help at all, and you stumble upon music-based puzzles.
Solving these puzzles, which can be easy, tricky or tough, brings a giant music maker to life and spreads tunes over the immediate space. It's an odd and exhilerating feeling when the beats you create in a puzzle get layered and heavy.
If you like digital tunes, have an awesome set of headphones and enjoy games that challenge you to learn, explore and think, FRACT OSC is something you'll want to check out. It drops on April 22nd, and you can snag it here.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number | Dennaton Games | PC, PS4, PS3, PS Vita
The original Hotline Miami, for me, was almost nightmare fuel. Getting addicted to the heart pounding music, the thrill of a successful set of kills, the brutality of the gameplay and the reward of winning almost made me feel dirty. It was a tough game to love, though love it I did, and it's one I still revisit often.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number gave me the same rush this past weekend in Boston. It was just as brutal as the original, and it provide a few new tricks like fresh characters, a new era and more music.
There are mechanics I didn't try at the demo, too. I didn't roll, I never dual-wielded weapons and I wasn't able to try the characters that play together as one cooperative unit. That stuff waits for me and the next time I sit down with this title.
Which, quite honestly, I hope comes sooner rather than later. The game is set to release during the third quarter of this year. I know several of us here at TechnoBuffalo's gaming department will be all over Hotline Miami 2 when it drops.
Hyper Light Drifter | Heart Machine | PC, PS4, Wii U, PS Vita, Ouya
I've been following Hyper Light Drifter closely since its Kickstarter run. This gorgeous game especially earned my attention after I had a chance to speak with developer Alex Preston at length. It stands tall amongst titles I'm looking forward to.
I had a chance to play through the PAX East demo while at the show. It was quick, but tough. Hyper Light Drifter presents an open world with a remarkable soundtrack. The Drifter was armed, in the demo at least, with a sword and a gun.
Combining the two in combat required strategy and good reflexes, and perhaps this is what surprised me most about the game. The combat is tough. It's not tough in a way that will make you hate the game for being unforgiving. It's tough in that you can't just hack and slash your way through every moment.
I learned that the hard way as I died four or five times in the same small space. I figured that I had to go about attacking each enemy while timing my dodges and rolling away from dangers a bit too critical.
There's going to be a fun difficulty curve in Hyper Light Drifter, something I really didn't expect. That challenge has me all the more excited.
The title is bound for the PC first, then it's hitting every other announced platform later.
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime | Asteroid Base | PC
This is one of the stranger games on my list of favorites from PAX. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is a single or two player game. I played it with a friend during my demo, so I can only speak to its cooperative nature.
We flew a craft through the black and neon hollows of this game's space while fighting off monsters and rescuing trapped rabbits on small planets.
What's unique about Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, though, is the way we controlled the craft. Rather than moving the ship itself, we moved pilots inside the ship. We climbed ladders to specific control modules. We interacted with these modules in order to, say, fire the lasers on the right, activate the special ability, steer the ship or control the shields.
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime required communication and cooperation. That's something the best couch-based co-op titles have to offer.
Nuclear Throne | Vlambeer | PC, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One
Another game, another tough roguelike. You sensing a trend here? This genre is all the rage, and some of the world's best independent developers are now taking cracks at making games that are tough, random and intense.
Nuclear Throne is one such upcoming offering. You play one of seven characters, and you find randomized skills and crazy weaponry to aid your objective. Yep, there are even Shotgun Fingers. Your goal is to lay waste to those in your way as you try and track down the titular Nuclear Throne.
What's been especially interesting about Nuclear Throne is its open development process. Vlambeer has been streaming the game creation on Twitch a couple of times a week, every week.
You can support their efforts and pick up an early access version of the game through its official site right here.
Secret Ponchos | Switchblade Monkeys | PS4, PC
Secret Ponchos is one of those games so dripping in specific style that it had my attention right out of its announcement gates. That happened last year, I played the game during PAX East 2013 and loved it.
The top down, wild west, twin-stick shooter made an appearance at PAX East again this year. Only this time, it was running on the PlayStation 4 and with a completely new engine behind it. It was tough, but it was also a blast.
This shooter features a roster of cruel characters, each sporting a unique weapon and skillset. It's Switchblade Monkeys' hope that players will embrace each character and use them to turn this multiplayer effort into a tough scene with a competitive community.
What I played was a lot of fun. It was also a locally splitscreen online eight player match running on the PlayStation 4 at a silky smooth 60 FPS. That should make stat geeks a little excited.
We'll have more on this one as it comes. Expect the game later this year on the PlayStation 4 and PC. If you want to support the team, they're opening up an Early Access program on Steam for the PC flavor in a little over a month's time. Stay tuned for that.
Sportsfriends | Die Gute Fabrik | PC, PS3, PS4
Couch-based cooperative and competitive gaming sort of went by the wayside with the introduction of online matchmaking, headsets and strong Internet connections. That's really a sad thing, folks, especially considering that so many of us probably have awesome gaming memories that involve crazy sleepovers featuring marathon sessions.
Local multiplayer has been making a comeback as of late, something I can really get behind. Whenever a developer shows off an interesting game that I think will be a lot of fun for my friends and me, I pay attention. Sportsfriends is one such game.
This collection of four weird events packs the wonderful premise of being deliriously easy to pick up and play, but tough to master. Its games, Super Pole Riders, Hokra, Johann Sebastian Joust and BaraBariBall all sport unique premises that any mild gamer will instantly understand.
The fun comes from the crazy stuff you'll be able to do within each game. I played two of them at PAX East, which you can read about here, and I can't wait to experience all four during a night of good food, good drinks and my friends.
Sportsfriends is listed as coming soon.
Transistor | Supergiant Games | PC, PS4
Transistor is beautiful. It looks incredible, and the music behind it is absolutely top-notch. For developer Supergiant Games, formerly of Bastion fame, those two design totems are becoming habitual.
That's a good thing. This game drops in just a month's time, and I cannot wait to play it again. It had a constantly massive line at PAX, and everyone from the press room to the show floor mentioned it.
With Transistor, combat works in two interesting ways. Red, the protagonist, can move about the space freely in real time dealing out damage to her foes. When the opponents overwhelm her, she can freeze time and plot out movements, attacks and defense. That comes at a cost, of course, but it lends Red to doing incredible hurt in quick bursts.
The formula is addictive and rewarding, which is exactly what we want from a game like this one.
We won't have to wait long to play the entire thing. Supergiant Games announced during PAX East that Transistor will hit the PlayStation 4 and PC on May 20th. Buckle up.
I played and saw a ton of wonderful games at PAX East 2014. These were most of my favorite titles. Did you go to the show? What did you like?