With PAX East 2020 finally coming to a close, it’s time to take stock of the final batch of exciting upcoming indie games from the show. Some have been shown off in high-profile press conferences, while others are hidden gems that I hadn’t even heard of before seeing them on the floor. I will also be mentioning a slew of other interesting titles that I didn’t get a chance to write about over the last few days but would be remiss to ignore.
Combining the mechanics of management sims with beautiful art and an overwhelmingly pleasant atmosphere, Spiritfarer is a game about coming to terms with death. The basic premise is that you are a ferry master of the dead named Stella, who must befriend and ultimately say goodbye to the many spirits that require your aid. Embodying the kind of comfy atmosphere that makes games like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon so appealing, Spiritfarer’s painterly backdrops, endearing character designs, and pleasant soundtrack soothe the soul. While exploring the various islands of this ghostly world, a wide variety of different cultural aesthetics appear as remembered reflections of those who have passed. The background art is lovingly rendered, the team specifically citing the work of Japanese woodblock painter Yoshida Hiroshi as a major source of influence. In terms of gameplay, Spiritfarer is an amalgamation of many different subsystems, a 2D platformer that features exploration, crafting, and resource management.
To convince spirits to join your ferry, you must construct specific buildings, and to create these structures you need to harness resources from the many landmasses you visit. Recruiting new spirits then unlocks even more crafting options. While transforming raw resources into more useful crafting components often takes time, this offers the opportunity to interact with the denizens of your ferry, as well as explore the world. What’s most impressive about this web of systems is that each individual component feels strong enough to exist on its own, and when combined together they create an enthralling gameplay loop. The platforming feels fluid and responsive enough for this to be a dedicated platformer. The ability to craft relationships with these lovable creatures is bolstered by the great art design. Juggling the many timed background tasks for acquiring certain resources seems as though it will be quite addicting. From my limited time playing, I could already feel the gameplay loop sinking its hooks in me, and while it’s obviously impossible to know if this sensation will be maintained over the full course of the game, it is quite an encouraging sign.
Over the span of a short fifteen-minute demo, If Found… managed to make me feel a richer tapestry of emotions than the vast majority of games can evoke in their entire runtime. This Visual Novel offers glimpses into a young woman’s past as she reconciles with issues of identity and purpose. But unlike the standard for the genre, the story is not advanced by clicking through hundreds of text boxes, and instead, the plot is presented through a montage of sketches. Your only point of interaction is to erase these sketches, revealing new drawings that tell a nonlinear story. We see that our protagonist Kassio is a dreamer, an aspiring scientist who has an unbridled love for the stars. We also see that she is painfully insecure, here combative relationship with her mother coming to life in a series of wistful journal entries and brutal exchanges over dinner. The sketchbook style and central mechanic of literally destroying the past through erasing what’s on-screen allows the story to naturally jump around in time, bringing us through Kassio’s experiences in a woozy fashion. The visuals call to mind the avant-garde final two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, similarly immersing us in the headspace of our protagonist with painful acumen. The soundtrack lends an air of melancholic longing that matches the profound imagery and journal entries. All things considered, If Found… is the type of obscure indie gem that makes attending conventions like PAX worth it.
Vigil: The Longest Night
While comparing games to Dark Souls should probably be a criminal offense at this point, it is fairly impossible to talk about Vigil: The Longest Night without making at least a passing reference to FromSoftware’s influential masterpiece. Glass Heart Games describes Salt and Sanctuary, and Castlevania as the inspirations for their macabre 2D action platformer, influences which are felt in the game’s brutal combat, visuals, and open-ended exploration. Blocking, rolling, and managing stamina meters are essential for surviving enemy encounters, and success in combat is predicated on reading enemy attack patterns and taking advantage of your moves invincibility frames. While attacks cannot be instantly canceled, both the roll and backstep moves have minimal delay, making combat feel weighty but brisk. Enemy’s strikes are properly telegraphed, and in my time playing, the proceedings were tough but fair, making each battle rewarding. However, where Vigil stands apart from many other Soulslikes is in its reliance on explicit storytelling. After an initial sequence where I battled a gaggle of monstrous creatures, I found myself at the gates of a town. Amidst the backdrop of tensions between Pagans and Christians, a girl has gone missing in the village, and you are tasked with finding her whereabouts. Investigating the town for clues gave the proceedings the trappings of an adventure game and required thoughtful navigation. Although Vigil’s combat, exploration, and RPG mechanics will likely provide comfort food for fans of those types of games, its most intriguing element is its narrative and adventure game elements.
Other Notable Games
The sequel to the outstanding Visual Novel VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartending Action was at PAX, and the only reason I didn’t cover it during the previous few days is because I covered it at the show last year. This year’s demo showcased the new drink crafting system, as well as the presence of dialogue options, both of which should provide new ways to get to know your patrons. VA-11 Hall-A had one of the most resonant video game stories in years and was able to successfully articulate the pains of its myriad dysfunctional characters with humor and grace. Based on the demo for N1RV-Anna I have high hopes that the sequel will do the same.
Panzer Paladin is a retro action game that stands apart from its peers thanks to its weighty but sharp controls, allowing players to pilot a feudal mech through a slew of platforming challenges. The game fully takes advantage of its premise, requiring the player to switch through large numbers of weapons while blocking attacks with your shield, and maneuvering through the environment with your mobile but sturdy suit of armor.
Also drawing inspiration from retro platformers, 30XX is an action game that asks the question “What if Mega Man was a roguelike?” Its sharp movement does a great job of emulating the feel of the Mega Man X games, and a variety of upgrades can combine to create interesting permutations. While roguelikes ultimately live or die by how varied and interesting their procedurally generated levels are, factors which can’t really be completely measured in a demo, I can at least confirm the basic platforming controlled like a dream. Batterystaple Games also has the advantage of iterating on their previous game 20XX, so I am quite optimistic about how this one will turn out.
Disc Room’s name succinctly describes its premise. You are trapped in various rooms with spinning deadly blades and must satisfy a set of criteria, like surviving for a certain amount of time, before you can proceed. Deaths come fast and frequent, but the responsive movement matches the game’s twitch gameplay quite nicely.
Gestalt: Steam & Cinder
Featuring some pretty remarkable pixel art and combat that is reminiscent of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Gestalt: Steam & Cinder is a 2-D RPG set in a steampunk world full of intrigue. In the small demo, I played I was repeatedly bowled over by the ornate 16-bit art style and felt myself becoming immersed in this space.
From the publishers of Overcooked comes another chaotic co-op game that requires coordination and execution. Here you and three other friends work together to hastily transport furniture to a moving van. Moving Out‘s levels do a great job of naturally creating hilarious disasters for you and your friends, and it looks like this will be another notable couch co-op game.
Wild at Heart
A thoroughly charming coming of age fantasy, Wild at Heart tells the story of a boy named Wake who finds himself lost in a whimsical and dangerous world. Melding puzzle gameplay and a combat system that is clearly inspired by Pikmin, this is another one to look out for.