Adjacent to this year’s stock of indie hopefuls sits an ominous booth. Golden arches frame a marquee that unhelpfully says: McDonald’s. There is a line. The only fair assumption is that Gamers have fallen for this tactic in cynical positioning, have now somehow justified standing in line for a Big Mac.
But there is no Big Mac. Just a crane game. They’re in line for a McDonald’s crane game. Wait till they find out they could be playing Splatoon 3 instead.
But then we discover the utility of this uncommon eye sore: McDonald’s is sponsoring this year’s PAX Indie Rising selection! This year’s breadth of titles includes 12 unique indie games which deserve a greater audience. Just behind McDonald’s awkward marketing encampment is a booth full of some totally valid games that you should keep an eye on. What good news has this unholy union blessed us with?
I’ve gone hands on with each game, interviewed most of their developers, and here’s what I found out.
A new game idea can just be two old ones put together. Take the block-sliding challenge of Sokoban (1982) and base it in a persistent, explorable world like The Legend of Zelda (1986). You have a clever new puzzle game.
It’s a treat between running between booths to settle down with a light engagement puzzle game. “Go at your own pace,” is the message of Akurra. Open up more of the world by moving blocks to access more puzzles where you move blocks that open up more of the world. Easy formula, easy mechanical loop.
Successfully funded on Kickstarter, the title is already ensured enough success to justify its existence. The contextual puzzles blending into our context of the world and the mystery of our lead character, are smart and small layers that ultimately create a cohesive system of ideas when put together. A demo is available on Steam.
Out now in Early Access on Steam, this (please don’t glaze over) rougelike platformer with several different routes and character paths with their own unique progressions, feels like a safe bet. There’s plenty of content already there. The average audience review is safely over 90%. I think the animations are quite contextually nice, snappy enough to hold up to the gameplay. Whether you need another thing like this is entirely dependent on how many things like this you’ve already played. This looks like a pretty standard quality one of these if you’re still into that kind of thing. At $25 you might want more, but you specifically might just want exactly this, too. It’s a safe gamble to play it or skip it. You do you. Shoutout to the pixel artists anyway. You guys rule.
This is a good opportunity to flag up one of my favorite PlayStation picks, Queasy Games & Santa Monica Studios’ 2012 rhythmic platforming masterpiece Sound Shapes. What I love about Sound Shapes is the way platforming builds a song. It is not timing insistent but when you’re flowing, it will feel like you’re perfectly synced with the looping, growing, instrumentally expanding audio track (notably, the Beck produced “Cities” segment is high concept and gorgeous). It’s a wonderful feeling when you begin to fly through the levels and play them again and again.
BeatBeat takes a more prescribed approach. Think Crypt of the Necrodancer (2015) — the sequel to which was also showing nearby — and transcribe it’s music cue movement systems to a loose platformer. Think minimalist, vapor ware aesthetics: a playable square bouncing between directional icons indicating which face button to press on the controller. Sure, it’s small (I like the Processor requirement: “a couple.”) It’s lightweight. For me it’s so lightweight it almost undersells itself as a reductive concept, when it could actually be a fairly expansive one, depending on which part of it is pitched to the audience.
While it’s nearing what will formally be something like a 1.0 milestone with “Disc 1” packing 30-something built-in challenges, the total appeal here is that it’s radically modular. You can create your own spaces and song patterns and icons in the game. Perhaps the lax undesign of it all is also a conduit for player-creator creativity. That’s what should be at the forefront. The developer tells us they went through all kinds of eclectic SoundClouds, from brightly electronic sounds and lofi beats for the player to relax and study to, and utilized samples that creatively embody the anime-vapor aesthetic, but most importantly, allow for mechanical transformation. As the game’s Steam Early Access page quips, “I am incapable of stopping you from replacing all of the beats with pictures of cats.”
The developers out of Broken Spear came from the right influences. They told us their team members came from: developing Tekken, card battling games, writing new unofficial supplements for D&D, and a love of the distinct visual aesthetics of Moebius comics. That’s not just a totally inspired well of experience, mechanical, and aesthetic resources, but the good news for the French Canadian developer is all of it shows up on the screen.
Of all the deck builders at the show, and there were several, Beneath Oresa showcases not just an intrinsic understanding of card mechanics applied to a videogame, but it also feels genuinely attached to the combat outcomes. There is — excuse me — a visceral kind of feedback when the combat lands and it feels like the response is also equivalent to what the card says it will be.
Top down, it’s just so sweet when the whole concept goes over the right way. The team also comes across very sweet and deeply impassioned by their project and the collective pathos of their artistic ambitions. Would love to interview them again and continue following their projects.
The PAX demo is available on Steam, where the game can also be followed. Heads up, it’s one of the better systems driven indies of the whole year, and it’s out in one short month.
The Brew Barons
Porco Rosso (1992) is an aviation based antifascist masterclass from Studio Ghibli, perhaps their most unheralded classic that demands your immediate attention. If you’ve experienced it’s aesthetic riches, you know already what wealth of visual inspiration could be drawn from its influence. The two friend team at Lifetap Studios left their jobs to go make dope videogames together. They are kindred spirits of pig-centered cinema and have found such novel reference points for their new flight game.
Their game does, in fact, feel pulled from the right stuff out of a Ghibli film, the floating mechanical wonder of a Pilot Wings videogame, and one of those dense PC resource trader games. You fly an aircraft over land and sea, delivering brews outside the market, while also tending to the maintenance and general leveling up of your aircraft.
When I arrived, the devs first question was: do you want the very long demo or the short one? The very long one, to which they smiled, and I saw why: their pride is very readable in the work. Some of the interfacing and pacing of the material thrown at the player needs a little tweaking but the sense of locality, the drifting feeling of flight, and the Ghibli nods are all arriving fully formed. Follow the game on Steam before it comes out early next year.
Death Roads: Tournament
Deck builders are all the rage these days. And these roads are full of rage. Back in the late ‘90s, now beloved developer Remedy dropped their first game, an MS-DOS cult classic, Death Rally (1998). The familiarly titled Death Roads may hold no formal affiliation (certainly there’s no Duke Nukem boss battles in it), but does scratch a certain itch of isometric motorized mayhem. Only, this time, it unfolds one turn and one card at a time.
It took only 44 minutes for The Knights of Unity to successfully Kickstart their Death Rally: All Stars boardgame. The appeal makes total sense as a card and boardgame and the translation to videogame is seemingly just as fluid.
The crux of the action is in lane and card management. It’s not, I think, immediately accessible for a show floor demo: it takes some playing with positional mechanics and how the cards play into ability effects and damage to opposing cards. After lots of ramming, mispositioning the car out of attack range, and trying to flatten our understanding to just play in the sandbox of these limited mechanics, it does start to take. Eventually, you’ll cotton on to how the rule sets function and have to do less thinking about each individual move and cost of performing it, and just fall into the zone of what the mechanics are. The smart end game and what the player ends up buying into is that after defeating each car mapped on the nonlinear map (traveling the beautifully named Divided States of America to forge a better life), you’ll nab some of their car parts, which then determines new outcomes for deck building.
They’re calling it a Roadlike. If the game does not mechanically hit in this setting, it does come with a certain curiosity as the boardgame and videogame are developed concurrently and those invested in the neat physical card game will have another way to engage with the team’s content when there aren’t friends over to break out the cards and sweet miniature car models (that are just begging to be painted by enthusiasts). A release date is not currently announced, but a demo is available now on Steam.
Looks like Chu Chu Rocket (1999). Don’t say it. You don’t have to say it.
“So, Chu Chu Rocket…”
“Kind of, uh, just put the headphones on and see…”
I put the headphones on. A conveyor belt puzzle game about frosting donuts. Super cute! A calming narrator leads us through the simple, early objectives, easing us in for what will in the full game be 144 total scenarios of ever increasing pathway complexity. The serenely soft presentation and almost ASMR-sounding voiceover lull the player into a sense of total ease. It’s such a warmly accessible game for your puzzle sweet tooth. If the saccharine art is appealing and you also can’t help but say “Chu Chu Rocket…” Freshly Frosted is available on Steam (with a 100% review average, so that’s nice).
Haiku the Robot
Look at this robot
Crafted by only one man
Support him on Steam
It’s never the highest priority for me at shows to look at the things you’ve been able to play all year. But for the right kind of indie games, having a presence sometimes is your first clue something exists. I expect that’s true of everyone and this adorable and efficiently made platformer. The developer learned how to do all this in just a few short years — the programming, the art, everything. Another reminder how open the development scene is right now and how many cute, small games are possible inside it. Worth having a quick look, here: if it’s not anything profound, it is just a right-sized indie game and making it is it’s own merit. I appreciate the consistent color palettes and brightly corrupted robot world of the game and it feels all right to play, too.
It’s a Wrap!
What started as a humble game jam entrant in Brackey’s Game Jam 2020.2 (that crude version is playable here) has snowballed into a complete project with greater scope that retains the original mechanical intrigue of that foundational idea. French dev Chanko Studios had one week and were given one concept, “Rewind.” They won the jam’s innovation reward and with some extra polish and clever design, landed a publishing deal with AMC Games (a branch of the prestige television channel).
We’re cast as director and star of varied low budget ‘80s action movies. A series of sliders control the set rigging and consequent events that play out over a short timeline. Playing the game, in a basic way, is like editing a movie, staging the timing of events, and then interactively platforming through the stage events you’ve set.
While still in development, the demo available at PAX is also available on Steam. Circular platforming puzzle logic brings to mind the best of the genre. Jonathan Blow’s 2008 opus Braid remains foundational and is instructive to the mechanics, but fundamentally, the platformer is about looping practice runs to create the run that works, and It’s a Wrap! taps right into that intrinsic mechanical pull. It needs just a bit more finessing, to better connect the staging and platforming segments before it can usurp the run-and-test methodology of a game like 2015’s Mario Maker. The promise of diverse movie scenarios calling back to cinema classics is enough to keep a close eye on this consistently developing project.
In 1992, Godzilla 2: War of the Monsters was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System with a profoundly good concept waiting for better execution. Kaiju Wars is that better execution, blending the boardgame-like integrity of Intelligent Systems’ Advance Wars series with city defense skirmishes against raging Kaiju. It’s a dream game.
“The game is doing… OK,” says Foolish Mortals lead designer Michael Long. We ask whether it would help if Nintendo’s Advance Wars remakes would come out, those having been shelved indefinitely due to the company not wanting to market war amidst headline dominating real world global conflict. A rising tide raises all ships. Michael confirms it would help, saying we just need people to find the game. What people are looking for is already here.
And it’s true. It’s a brilliant little concept well executed, sitting on Steam with a 9/10 review average, a run of 50 Kaiju defense scenarios just waiting for your money. I loved the demo because Michael said I was a tactical genius and that’s all it takes for me to recommend a game. But I also believe in what the small Saskatchewan studio is making and they are Canadian nice. I spent my time before the demo talking to Michael’s partner about the importance of development spouses — the real hero of creative works are all the invisible supporters.
So, while waiting for the new revision of the much beloved Advance Wars, here’s a call to action: support this.
Little Kitty Big City
The most obvious analogue for this game may be Cat Lover Game of the Moment Stray, but the genuine aesthetic thread feels more closely tied to the beautiful Untitled Goose Game (2019). It wants so badly to tap that same well of productively meme-driven online energy. Because this other major cat game has just come out and there is a more refined goose game like it already, it’s hard to say where it will find a market. The cat is very cute though and you can put lots of hats on it and take pictures. Hopefully more of a “game” develops around it as the small team at Double Dagger Studios continue work on this cute sweetheart of an indie game.
Let’s check and see when it’ll be released — “cats don’t have deadlines.” Oh, well, you can follow Little Kitty Big City on Steam.
Anything contemporary coming out of Ukraine feels like a small miracle, a work of great perseverance, where the authors must continue making art because that is a moral victory. That’s how I feel about Lepka Games, authors of March! March! — creating their game is it’s own victory.
And the rewards are sweet enough. This rougelike auto-battler deals in turn based combat, where armies are placed on battlefields, maneuvered, and then fight it out. You’ll upgrade your armies between rounds and continue building stronger and more resilient forces. It’s cartoon cute, accessible, and of course, this sort of game means a little more coming out of Ukraine right now.
The team at Lapka Games could not attend this year’s PAX, due to the ongoing war that requires adult men to stay behind in defense of their country. Beyond luck with the game, we’re wishing them all the best, and look forward to seeing their game released in the near future. Until then, you can wishlist the game and play a demo on Steam, before March! March! releases in March of 2023.