In the wake of Sony and a few other major publishers scaling back their operations at PAX East 2020 due to the coronavirus, it seemed as though the convention might have been in dire straights. But in reality, this year’s show has once again proven the wealth and diversity of the experiences provided by the modern gaming scene. There is really an embarrassment of riches on the show floor this year, mostly in the form of more obscure indie titles. Considering the multitudes of interesting games being shown off this year, the following is not an all-inclusive list. But, regardless, here is a summary of my favourite games from day one of the show.
Final Fantasy VII
With Final Fantasy VII Square Enix is completely rebuilding their classic for a contemporary audience, morphing the beloved title from a turn-based RPG into a hybrid action experience. Deeply indebted to both Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy XV, the game mixes real-time action combat with menu-based command systems. In the midst of battle, you can slow down time to command your party members, executing a slew of tactical maneuvers to give you a significant advantage. This shift towards a more action-oriented seems very promising, as combat is now a stylish and engaging endeavor. The ability to pause the combat to plan out moves lends a cerebral flair to the proceedings. These special abilities allow you to take advantage of crucial enemy weaknesses, creating an important sense of tactics to the hacking and slashing. Between the sleek attack animations and the impact of your sword swings, the battles have a tactile feel. Repeated sword slashes send enemies skyward, allowing you to satisfyingly chain into devastating special movies. Defensive mechanics like a dodge and block add a layer of complexity that should hopefully keep things from devolving into button mashing. The visual updates are just as impressive, and Square continues to prove that they are really, really good at rendering anime people in 3D. While it is yet to be seen if the melodrama of the original game will land well in a contemporary context, the core gameplay at least seems to be trending in the right direction.
It is pretty exciting that the previously obscure Neo-Geo game Windjammers has gained an increased following in recent years, and even more exciting that DotEmu is bringing us a sequel that remains faithful to its predecessor, whilst expanding on it in some very promising ways. Windjammers can be most easily explained as an evolution of Pong where you must throw a frisbee past your opponent to score. Whilst it is defined by a fairly simple control scheme, there is a ton of nuance in the ways that you can toss the disk, making for an exceedingly frenetic battle of reflexes and strategy. When you don’t have the frisbee you can perform a dash to quickly cover ground and intercept the disks trajectory. When you do have it, you can carefully time your throw so that you instantly release the frisbee after it touches you, increasing your throw speed. You can also aim and curve the path of the disk, as well as hold the throw button to knock it into the air and setup up for powerful special moves. Windjammers 2 maintains the tight controls and blistering speed of its predecessor, while also adding a few moves that add further dimensions to the game. Curved shots, powered up special moves, and lobs are all still present, but now you can also slap the frisbee out of the air, jump to intercept lobs, and perform powered up EX moves after you’ve built up enough meter. This additional tactical complexity adds new wrinkles that make the high speed back and forth of volleys feel even richer. And while theses mechanics may sound a little overwhelming for newcomers, the basics of the game can be enjoyed by only using a control stick and a single button, making it easy to pick up and play. Add in some great looking hand-drawn art, and a instensely 90s inpsired look, and you have all the ingredients for a game that will hopefully grab a large audience. If there is any game that I hope catches on in the E-sports scene, it is Windjammers 2.
Samurai Gunn 2
Speaking of simple but addicting high-speed games, Samurai Gunn 2 is another outrageously fun competitive experience. A four-player, single-screen brawler similar to games like Towerfall, Teknopant’s sequel is a loving homage to the aesthetic trappings of Chanbara films. Four small pixelated characters dash and slice across the screen, blood sprays and slowdowns accenting each kill. Here a single hit means death, making for a thrilling string of duels. Each player is armed with a katana and a pistol that carries three shots. While you may think that a gun beats a sword, bullets can be deflected back with a carefully timed sword strike, leading to a gameplay session turning into a montage of badass displays. The twitch gameplay and tight controls make for finely-tuned bloodbaths, victory and defeat coming in quick barrages on the tiny maps. The great animation work and oozing style embellish the seemingly simple gameplay, while clever little gameplay twists like limited ammo and the ability to deflect projectiles grants enough depth and variety to make things exciting each match. Hopefully, the sequel will finally include online matchmaking, allowing for this one to thrive beyond the local competitive scene.
The surge of indie titles over the last few console generations has led to an uptick in revitalization and re-imagines of old-school styles of games, leading to a tidal wave of smart redesigns of outdated gameplay systems. Young Souls is shaping up to be another example of this, a slick dungeon-crawling beat em’ up that is defined by tight controls and a comfortable surplus of RPG mechanics. While the beat-em-ups of old were largely coin-guzzling affairs that weren’t designed with fairness in mind, The Arcade Crew’s take on the genre instead chooses to take a page out of FromSoftware’s playbook. Between the ability to block, roll and parry, as well as a general sense of responsiveness, here you are given the tools to succeed. And this is important because enemies can be quite unforgiving, requiring the player to recognize telegraphed attacks to succeed. This makes combat far more rewarding than the typical genre entries, and when combined with a seemingly robust inventory system that affects stats and movesets, Young Souls looks like it will have far more depth than a typical example of its genre.
Minute of Islands
Minute of Island is a striking indie gem that’s’ beautiful hand-art and atmospheric presentation make it one of the most exciting surprises of the show so far. Presenting a fantastical vision of post-apocalypse, you control a young girl who must avert further calamity by limiting the spread of deadly spores that pollute the air. Described as a narrative puzzle-platformer, wistful blurbs of text accompany your wanderings in this gorgeous but dangerous world. I was struck by how quickly and effectively the game established a distinct tone, the combination of intriguing world-building and melancholic musings creating an enchanting space that I wanted to explore further. While I didn’t have a ton of time with it, the economy of storytelling here was extremely impressive, with touches like the juxtaposition between futuristic alien technology with lo-fi fishing hamlets inspiring curiosity. Mechanically things seemed fairly straightforward, but the platforming and puzzle-solving seem like they will complement the discovery of this world’s secrets.
The Big Con
Inspired by stories of grifters, cheats, and other morally ambiguous protagonists, The Big Con follows junior high school student Ali as she attempts to drum up enough funds to save her mom’s video store. This adventure game’s neon color palette immediately calls to mind cartoons of the 90s, and the game’s irreverent tone and sense of attitude definitely back this comparison up. The funny dialogue and quirky charm come across even in this small vertical slice, delivering on a particular brand of teen angst. But it doesn’t just get by on the strengths of its writing, there is also some solid gamified swindling to back things up. From your conversations with the patrons of the Mallton Mall, you have either puzzle out the best ways to squeeze money out of them, or you can just go for a plain-old pickpocket. That said if you mess up the timing of the stealing mini-game you may only be able to complete that particular character’s quest if you wear a disguise. From what I’ve seen of it, The Big Con nails a particular style and sense of place.