Been a while since I’ve been to PAX West. Admittedly I wasn’t certain it would survive the COVID years as attendee discussion around the event increasingly focused on it feeling smaller and less fulfilling. This year was kind of make or break for me. The convention is still enforcing mask mandates, though with no social distancing, and is lacking many of the big name publishers that gamers flock to PAX for.
In my opinion that’s all fine by me. Health safety is important (heck, maybe I’ll finally leave one of these and not feel sick after) and the lack of bigger publishers just means the indie crowd gets all the shine.
These last two days have felt a bit a of a blur, but I can confidently say that it feels just like the PAX that I remember, but now with the added benefit of smaller crowds, which means I can actually queue up for a demo and not have it take an hour. All pluses in this podcast co-host’s opinion.
So without further delay, here are fourteen games I, the illustrious Murph, played across the first two days of the convention.
The first game I played at PAX was one I’ve been waiting for a while: Tinykin from TinyBuild (all the obvious jokes on the game/pub parity here have been made). Its easy to compare Tinykin to the Pikmin franchise. Both are about shrunk-down explorers who encounter small swarming critters that they throw to make problems go away, but while Pikmin is about combat and a sort of RTS management, Tinykin is more about puzzle solving and exploration. The environments are huge and have exceptional verticality with so many nooks and crannies to get lost in.
You don’t grow your Tinykin minions, you have to find and hatch them within the level itself. Memorizing where everything is in these intricate levels felt part of the game as I’d come across obstacles I was a few tinykin short to solve, leaving me to make a mental note to come back to it once I found a few more. Luckily moving around is easy thanks to a bubble glide and a soapbar you can ride around like a skateboard.
The levels feel detailed and lived in by this world of bugs. I want to call particular attention to the sound design. Every surface has different sound profiles for whether you’re walking or jumping on them. From a skateboard turned into a bridge, to a overturned wicker basket, they all sound right. Trust me, I was one of those kids that made elaborate fortresses for my action figures, I notice these things.
Baulder’s Gate 3
Baldur’s Gate (1998) is one of those games I keep meaning to play to completion, mainly for gamer cred, but haven’t due to outdated design elements and lacking QoL elements. Baldur’s Gate 3 is not being helmed by its original team, and is instead being developed by Larian Studios, the same devs many would credit with reviving the iso-rpg genre with Divinity: Original Sin. It seems like a match made in heaven, but this demo left me wincing.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is currently in Early Access and what I played at PAX is the most up-to-date version. I experienced numerous graphical glitches from pop-in textures, odd hair physics, and corpses standing and T-posing up after I inspected them. It’s really worrying for a game that’s been in Early Access for nearly three years.
There’s also a general stiffness in the cutscenes, which may have actually worked to the game’s favor because what it was really reminding me of was Dragon Age: Origins (2009), and I have played a lot of Dragon Age: Origins.
Whereas the original Baldur’s Gate games ran off the D&D 2nd Edition rules, BG3 does an interpretation of the much more streamlined 5E rules. Combat is snappy without sacrificing any of the depth. I was tantalized at the extent of the character creator offering all the base classes, backgrounds, and races for the full game. I was tickled at how skill checks were actually visualized by the role of a d20. There’s even a bit of a Disco Elysium (2019) vibe as passive checks for knowledge based skills will chime in to give you additional insight to what’s going on.
Genuinely, I want this game to be good. The gameplay feels right and they’re definitely shooting for an epic tone worthy for a sequel to a series of this renown. They just need to hammer out these technical and presentational issues that are bringing down the entire experience.
Sometimes it feels gauche to immediately invoke a famous game to describe another game. It feels like it cheapens the original work of the devs to boil their work down to “X but Y!”
Just wanted to get that out of the way before I say that Blade Assault feels like Hades (2018), but as a 2D hack-n-slash.
The comparisons feel really unavoidable. Blade Assault features rougelike gameplay about clearing various rooms of enemy waves, at the end of which you pick-up a randomized, themed, buff for your weapon, dash, or special. Like Hades the cast is broad, memorable, and serve purpose both in narrative and gameplay. Like Hades each area ends in a set boss for you to memorize and best (the demo I played ended on a grenade-happy frog with a revolver that kept kicking my butt).
Also like Hades, Blade Assault feels real good to play.
Your character is agile, with a generous double jump that can clear the height of most of the rooms. You have a good variety attacks that can all easily flow into each other and satisfyingly delete huge chunks of enemy health bars. There’s this buzz-saw flip I kept spamming, not because it was particularly powerful, but because its so fun to go brrrr.
With fewer games than usual at PAX this year I expect to swing by the demo for Blade Assault a few more times till I beat that frog boss.
I was shocked that Cookie Cutter shared no dev DNA with the fighting game Skullgirls (2012). Both have these very fluid hand-drawn animations, combo systems that encourage mix-ups and pressure, and a very intentional sexualization of their lead characters.
Cookie Cutter is a metroidvania brawler. Lead character Ruby is an android with a penchant for violence and panty shots (seriously, every movement leads to panties). She doesn’t fit the traditional design of a vidya game waifu and that’s to the game’s benefit. Especially since the devs aren’t shy about her being crude or having unfathomable violence done against her. Ruby’s death animation is her falling apart as her meat bits dissolve into a pool of blood. The game definitely has an aesthetic that may be an acquired taste.
Unfortunately I found it a game that was more fun to watch than play. Despite the fluid animation, everything felt weirdly stiff in a way I can’t quite describe. It may be that, like a fighting game, the devs intend the players to get familiar with the frame data of particular attacks and piece together combos that way, or maybe it’s the fact that basic strings don’t do enough damage to dispatch even the shambliest of foes. Either way it feels like an adjustment needs to be made. I could be wrong. The last game I played at PAX that I thought was stiff and weird was Disco Elysium and it only became one of my favorite RPGs of all time. So here’s hoping for Cookie Cutter to break the demo jitters.
Sucker for Love: Date to Die For
Sucker for Love started as a bite-sized game in the horror anthology Dread X Collection 2. The game is about a love-sick cultist who summons a world ending horror specifically so he can smooch her. The marriage of dating sim and Lovecraft proved so popular that it was developed into a full game, Sucker for Love: First Date that released earlier this year.
The sequel Sucker For Love: Date to Die For is not at PAX, in fact, the trailer dropped just as I was stopping by publisher DreadXP’s booth to interview developer AkaBaka about the new game.
My initial question was what came first: The Dating Sim, or the Lovecraft influence. Akabaka’s background is in visual novels so when he received the prompt “lovecrafting” for his contribution to the second Dread X Collection he knew he could fall back on that experience to making a dating sim where the “crafting” mechanic is the various rituals you perform to please your unfathomable paramour. The horror comes from screwing up said rituals and seeing what endless torment lays in wait for those that displease the elder gods. While First Date focused on a male cultist and female old ones, Date to Die For promises a more Sapphic adventure following a new cast and a very 90s anime aesthetic. AkaBaka also mentioned that there will be a third game to complete the trilogy, though he wasn’t ready to share details on that yet.
The rain is pouring on the neon lit streets. Our hero is about to finish their quest for vengeance, but first they must cut down the army of grunts in their way.
For many games this would be the climax, the final rush to the end, but for Akane it is the first stage. In fact, it’s the only stage. You play as the titular Akane on the last night of her apparently long and bloody hunt for the Yakuza boss that killed her family. You die in one hit, but so do your enemies. You have a trusty katana and a gun of your choice and your goal is essentially to survive the seemingly endless waves of goons out to kill you until you get a shot at the boss.
It’s essentially a score chasing game. Each run is in the same arena, though you can change your loadout, fighting the same setlist of enemies. Yet despite this simplicity, I was sucked into this demo.
From the word “Go!” I was constantly on the move, cutting down the nearest grunts with the satisfying slash of my blade, looking for gaps in the group to dash through for breathing room, keeping an eye on my ammo to know how many shots I can pop-off before needing to reload. It’s simple and satisfying in the way Pac-Man (1980) is simple and satisfying. You just turn your brain-off and do without pretense for plot or skill trees or what have you.
If you screw up and die the momentum seemingly doesn’t slow because a quick hit of the Retry button puts you right back to the start of the action with no loading. I don’t know how many attempts I did, but I do know I had to rip myself away to get to my other appointments.
As a pick-up-and-play game Akane might be my new timesink. Which is lucky for me that it’s already out on Steam and Switch for a very reasonable $5, with a port to PlayStation and Xbox expected later this year. I actually have it waiting for me after I finish this article.
Horror games have long since figured out the trick of having the player think they’ve reached a dead-end then having the room change behind them. Mirror Forge has that happen for seemingly every time you turn around, dead end or not.
You play an amnesiac who awakens in the town of Goreburg long after it has fallen to some sort of eldritch entity. Abominations walk the streets and there’s an abundance of tentacles blocking your path. The game promises an open-world experience with all sorts of aberrations to outwit. It would be tantalizing if it weren’t so scary.
The demo I played was very heavy on things appearing just out of my field of vision. Weird vortexes, shadows, words. The moment I put focus on any of them they vanished. The sense of unease was high and it was aided by the fact that the game doesn’t feel like one of those “haunted house” games ala Layers of Fear (2018). First they give you a weapon in the form of a demonic idol that can keep various shambling madnesses at bay. Because of this I was hot-swapping between my flashlight and the idol every time something vaguely sinister appeared. It’s amazing how, paradoxically, giving the player a means of defense can actually add to the heightening of horror. Mirror Forge has me very intrigued by its world and promised mechanics. If it can maintain the same sense of dread that the demo had for the length of an entire game I think this could become a must-have for horror fans.
Floppy Knights is a charming little indie tactics game about a young girl named Phoebe and her cyborg arm entering the lucrative world of monster hunting. Phoebe can summon various creatures to do fighting for her. The game has a deck-building mechanic where you pick a commander and supporting creatures, who in-turn stock your deck with mechanics unique to them. Basic functions like movement and attacking are dependent on the cards, which you obviously can only play a few of each turn.
It took a few rounds for me to figure out that just rushing in and attacking at every opportunity wasn’t going to work (I died in the tutorial). The game wants you to properly plan your moves based around how much energy you have for that turn. Because it is a deck builder there is a feeling like you can be screwed by the luck of the draw, particularly if you don’t draw minions who can draw agro from your commander.
This game is cute, and I like looking at it. The little bouncing idle animations of characters on the board have a fun energy and the overall aesthetic definitely reminds me of sketches I’d make in my notebook when I should have been listening to the teacher talking. Like a few other games I’ve mentioned in this article, Floppy Knights is currently available on most systems, so if everything I’ve said here sounds good I highly recommend you give it a try.
Hoa is a very gentle game about a little gnome returning to his forest home and finding it slowly being taken over by machines.
The gnome, who may or may not be the titular Hoa I’m not really sure, can grow plants and awaken dormant life just by being near them. As you walk, flowers and leaves will sprout to make platforms and insects will start to scamper around to aid you. The game invokes those soft story-books for children, the kind with hand-painted art on big, glossy pages.
What stands out the most is the soundtrack, which is achingly beautiful and does a lot of heavy lifting in making the simple act of bouncing between leaves seem important. That all said, I was fairly underwhelmed by the gameplay. Hoa is a puzzle platformer clearly made for a much younger crowd. Everything was just a bit too slow for my taste. A bit too “look at the whimsy and wonder” when said whimsy and wonder is a big caterpillar waking up.
Salt & Sacrifice
The last thing I did on Day 1 was swing by the booth for Ska Studios, developer known for Salt & Sanctuary (talked about by moi on the most recent Daydreamcast), and its recent sequel Salt & Sacrifice.
Salt & Sacrifice still has the 2D souslike combat and metroidvania progression of its predecessor, but with a sort of Monster Hunter twist. Rather than one big map, it has instanced zones where you hunt down different, procedurally generated mages.
Salt & Sacrifice has been out since May of this year, so what I was actually there to demo was an early version of their planned arena mode. Whether this will be a mode to select from the main menu, or a location to go to in game is yet to be decided, but I can tell you that Salt & Sacrifice works very well as an arena fighter.
The arena they had set up offers a lot of different levels of verticality so players can get crafty with positioning, especially those reliant on ranged or air-focused weapons. Since it still has that soulslike combat, there’s a lot of keeping an eye on your stamina as well as your health. One of the players I matched up against continually baited my dodge roll until I ran out of my stamina, at which point he was able to beat me swiftly. The demo had a variety of pre-built characters to pick from that offered different playstyles, but the devs assured that in the full release they intend to let players use their in-game builds.
The devs admitted they mainly see the arena mode as a fun addition to the game and little more, but in my opinion I think they have something here. The pace of the combat has a great ebb and flow as players adjust to each other’s tactics. It was fun to poke and prod and bait my opponent into leaving themselves open, and I could see a full release expanding on this specific PvP combat. I did mention to Ska Studios that Salt & Survival would be a great name for a battle royale using these systems, so if they run with that I at least get partial credit.
Beneath the big glowing spider at the Tinybuild booth is a game about spiders with lightsabers.
Not sure if I need more of a descriptor than that.
SpiderHeck definitely feels like it takes more than a few cues from 2015’s Stick Fight: The Game. 2-4 players spawn in chaotic, physics-driven maps where chaotic, physics-driven weapons spawn, just now all the players are spiders that can walk on all surfaces and have a chaotic, physics-driven web-slinging ability.
I played a first to 6 wins match (which I won) and each round was a mad scramble to figure out how each weapon and map worked. The weapons range from the aforementioned lightsabers to scattershot grenade launchers. It’s pretty easy to self-destruct, and that’s part of the fun. As the rounds went on I could feel myself getting more accustomed to the floaty controls and general mayhem to the point I was pulling off some pretty sweet mid-air cleavings and web-recovery shots. The game is stupid fun and I recommend checking out the demo that’s live on Steam right now.
Anger Foot is the story of one man on a quest to recover his beloved sneakers from C R I M E G A N G. To do this he uses his feet. He uses his feet to kick in doors, to equip ability enhancing sneakers, and to feed his girlfriend popcorn.
By that description you should be able to tell that Anger Foot has publisher Devolver Digital’s trademark wackiness. Enemies dance at you when you die. Grenades have a timer that sounds like a cuckoo clock, and, it bears repeating, you feed someone popcorn from between your toes.
Luckily there’s a good amount of substance attached to all this style. The game is a kinetic shooter where both you and your enemies die in one hit. The movement speed and FOV are cranked way up so that every room feels like a ride or die free-for-all of bullets and feet. Sometimes you feel like an unstoppable machine of toe-slaughter, other times you forget about the dude on the left of the room entrance and wind-up face down, feet up. It’s a fun game with a lot of sole.
Never comes up a lot, but my grandfather is a true-blue moonshiner. One of the old guard of chemists who found new ways to convert plants into alcohol with as cheap a set-up as you could. You can buy his book on Amazon.
Moonshine Inc. from Polish dev Klabater, sent me back to summers with grandpa where he’d talk to me about how you need the mixture of mash just right so it doesn’t come out so strong you need to water it down. The game is a management sim about running a backwoods bootlegging operation and it is dense with systems to realize every part of that. The tutorial had me erecting stills, securing crop, and making minute changes to the recipe to get the desired flavor of Rotgut. It was a lot to take in, especially since this isn’t my preferred genre, but after the tutorial was done I immediately started playing with the myriad of sliders and ingredients at my disposal even in the early game.
The game promises a true moonshiners’ experience, which means being on the run from the law. Each location you set up shop has a police presence you have to watch out for. Get too relaxed in selling your product and you may be subject to a raid that will whip out your base of operations. Part of me feels a strong desire to get this game just so I can show it to my grandpa for him to fact check.
Lies of P
Lies of P only needed to fill one criteria for me to walk away from its demo happy. That criteria was “Just Bloodborne enough.”
And it was. Oh boy it was.
The game is a soulslike about a dark take on the story of Pinocchio, now about an cyborg that must fight through his twisted android brethren. Immediately I felt at home in the quick-step dodges and high-aggression of the combat. It has a slight variation on Elden Ring’s ashes of war, only here it takes the form of mixing and matching weapon heads to various hilts. Each head offers a different playstyle, as well as a unique special move, while each hilt offers stat-bonuses and a unique guard move. On top of that you get unique side-arms that offer a diversity of combat options such as a grapple hook, or a flamethrower. When I discovered I could use the grapple hook to rip snipers off their perch I let out a malicious giggle.
Lies of P may just be a whole-hearted mimic of Bloodborne (2015) and other souls games, but its doing it well enough that just from this demo I feel it could be mistaken for a genuine entry from FromSoft. I am very much looking forward to its full release.