The Indie Rising Showcase is the hidden gem of PAX events. Nestled snuggly inside the new Summit wing of the Seattle Convention Center, is an open area with a series of back-to-back indie games. The creators of these games are invited to each PAX event where they are featured and it’s often the best place to get one-on-one time with developers on the show floor. Pretty much every game featured flies right under the radar and all of them deserve some consideration for print and online writing. It is also a less crowded space on the show floor. Not everyone knows, or will even find out, about the treasures found in the PAX Indie Rising Showcase. We’re here to make sure you do know about them, middlemen between inspiring indie games and your Steam Wishlist. Let’s take a look at this year’s selection which spans all genres, from a couple different classes of city-builders, a totally inclusive match-3 puzzle game, a fantastic action tribute to your favorite core videogames, and several experimental and mechanical intrigues.
Against the Storm
A city-builder with the traditional perspective of a Real Time Strategy game, Against the Storm is a cyclical dark fantasy experience about creating a new world. As the Viceroy, we’re under the careful watch of the Scorched Queen, who grows in impatience as the game progresses. To satisfy her restlessness, we must fill our blue progress bar before her red bar ends the game for us. This is the evolution of the world in miniature. The game feels like it has so much potential, especially for every playthrough to branch and path out in a variety of ways. There’s a nice early-aughts Blizzard aesthetic, like Warcraft III (2002), that really anchors the whole vibe and sense of place the developers are going for. Against the Storm is full of potential and offers a rich strategic fantasy approach to the usual city-builder game. We’re excited to see how the game progresses and think you will be, too.
The first thing you find out about many indie videogames is how sweet the people who make them are. Arriving to the booth, we were first introduced to the developer’s partner. Did they work on the game? “I’m just the emotional support partner.” That’s one of the most important jobs in game development. The developer stepped over after finishing another conversation, explaining how during the COVID lockdown, he often found himself home and in front of a computer for long stretches, and if that had to be the case, he had to make something more compelling for his time. Thus, Black Jackal was born from a need to create. What Black Jackal is, is a drone exploration game. As the drone operator aboard the space salvage ship Black Jackal, you explore derelict spacecraft, while communicating with a couple of companions aboard your ship. Each mission will entail a different vessel to explore and the mechanics feel open, like many early 3D computer games, where you are not affixed to the ground, and get to fly and rotate your craft, exploring the well-detailed interiors of these ships and finding out what has happened on them and if there is anything you can salvage from them.
The Polish game industry is flourishing. Due to the combined action of the Polish government and major industry players like CD Projekt Red, the country is funding some varied and curious videogame products. They’re becoming a sizeable player in indie games. It comes up relatively often when you talk to developers now. They’re from Poland. Their development is subsidized by the government. Didn’t use to be that way but now the Polish industry is present and proud. That was the direct charm of First Dwarf, as the prideful game designer led us through Star Drifters’ aesthetically rich fantasy action game. It’s your usual non-horror survival setup. You’ve got to make camp as this rogueish Dwarf, collect some supplies and especially your hammer, then go and repair your mech. Your mech! Dwarves are excellent engineers in this universe and you’ll be utilizing your expertise to build out a strong base and venture further into the world. The early stages of these games make for hard demos but the demo clearly sold us on two aspects: the developers have big hearts for game development and have located a brightly appealing visual style that shows all of the craft and hours put into the game.
Looks can be deceiving in Ink Inside, a really compelling dodgeball adventure game that stars a simple stick figure as its main character. There is much more going on under the hood. The game has legitimate world-building. Through FMV sequences, which are smartly directed and set a novel tone and childlike imagination for the context of the game, Ink Inside grows in your heart and imagination the longer you sit in with it. Sometimes the truest test of a game is playing it. Here, the dodgeball mechanics are easy-going and fun, with equipment and enemy variety promising to add depth to the story, which is well-written and voice-acted. Ink Inside is a cute game and fun to play but nothing sells it better than the passion of the people working on it. The game has been designed by about a dozen people, all of them remote, and building the game through correspondence. This reminds us of how game development is changing and how even through the internet, we can continue to make personal and smartly designed games that reveal more to us the more we play them.
Instruments of Destruction
The proof is in the showing. You know Instruments of Destruction works because of who was playing it at the show. I spent a few hours around the general booth area and it was always being played by kids. That tells you what you need to know. Instruments of Destruction is for the children. It’s also for folks who love the Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts (2008) design of creating a vehicle and then testing it in a game space. The objective here is always one thing. Run your created vehicle through all the buildings with minor stipulations: Can you finish it before the time limit runs out or can you demolish all the buildings before a giant Kraken does? Selecting a destruction zone in the demo resulted in a developer-engineered machine being assigned to it. The designs they’ve chosen are solid representations of what you’ll be able to make and download from the game’s Steam Workshop. The vehicles feel modular like parts can be interchanged and slotted wherever you would desire, whether you want guns, sprockets, threads, or all of the above. Instruments of Destruction is a fun way to build a game out of straightforward physics combined with vehicle customization tools.
Leaf Blower Man: This Game Blows!
I love it when games utilize their mechanics to trick the players. That’s a fun thing games can do, where they use the player’s reliance on tutorilalizing and the way games usually go, and then twist expectations, which encourages us to think not just about what the game is doing but also how we interface with games. Leaf Blower Man: This Game Blows! starts as a multidirectional blower where you move leaves around in highlighted areas. It feels so simple straight away: blow these leaves into a concentrated pile. Easy. Then it gives us an obstacle course. Our first thought it that the way we blow leaves, they’ll inevitably leave the track outlined in cones. When that happens and we go chasing them, inevitably we’ll start blowing down the cones. And then something good happens. We start getting points for doing the wrong thing. It’s like being rewarded for running left in games. A beautiful development tactic. So we just blow through all the cones and all the leaves and take our points into the next area, where we terrorize all of our neighbors and blow them away along with all of their belongings. The game is intercut with funny FMV videos (in the guise of old training videos) of the developer, which occasionally cues us that we’re experimenting with form and twisting the simplicity of these conventions. Come for a simple Robotron-type game and stay for the game dissecting its own play.
It happens at conventions. Sometimes a station sits empty — an empty station surrounded by a flood of activity. You do not know how to approach it. So you wait and play all the other games. And there it is, still: open and unmanned, but waiting for you. So, sadly we didn’t get to talk to anyone about Pile Up! or gain further insight than what the game could show us on its own. Luckily for us and the game, it’s a pretty novel vertically-oriented city builder. Charmingly, at the bottom of the mountain is a glowing PAX display, we’re building our city on this expo, baby. It took a few tries at the game to sort out exactly what it wanted. What it wanted was for the player to work through a deck of cards, each representing a building. When you place a building, it terraforms around the environment and the other buildings in a satisfying way, and once they are formed, the buildings light up with symbols indicating what their needs are. Here’s where the strategy comes into play, as there are many ways to build your city creatively and solve the space puzzle of where to put what building, but there are optimal solutions in how you fit these spaces together, from housing units that increase the populous of the tower, to cinemas and factories that fulfill needs and create a cultural monument that builds up and tells the story about how you have perceived your civilization in a stacking cityscape. Neat idea that with some accessibility and quality of life features, could prove to be a strong and atypical city builder.
At first sight, Yummy Games’ Project Tower looks like a medium-range AA game. You can hardly tell it’s indie until you get into its systems and feel that sense of charm and exploration inherent in its third-person shooter design. Sometimes the systems of a game are front and center and the most crucial aspect of it. That’s how it goes here, as Project Tower is a blessedly fluid shooter. It feels great to move around. It feels great to shoot. That could be enough but it has another significant catch — you can morph into enemies and objects in the game world. There was a thrilling moment when after facing off against a Xenomorph-type alien in an arena boss fight, we got to become the alien. The game fundamentally changed here. Our jumps became longer and more sprawling and we could fire powerful fire attacks from our head. There’s a lot of badassery here and seeing the game in-movement is certainly enough to sell it. There’s yet another section where you can co-opt a stationary laser gun being used for a puzzle, and explore the puzzle from another perspective. So, besides the brawn and polish, there’s also the possibility Project Tower will have thoughtful mechanical engagement. We can’t wait to see how it morphs into a final product.
The best of the bunch and one of the coolest videogames of the whole show, Revenant’s Reach is all of the coolest things games can be. We can name-drop all the cool games it’s like: Bionic Commando; (1988) Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997); Dark Souls (2011); and all the other games you like, but if you combine enough cool things, you eventually just get another cool, new thing. What’s immediately striking is how the game, designed in Unreal’s 3D engine, uses a 2.5D perspective to create depth and immersion in its environments and signature aesthetic. The developers are super passionate about the game and that shows in the product. They spoke to us about how funny it is when you spend a lot of time crunching down the graphics, to suit both the 3D and 2D elements, effectively putting in a high effort to make a crude aesthetic that drives the whole experience. What’s more, the game utilizes a super-fun grapple-swinging mechanic, creating a novel sense of movement through the environment. The slice designed for the demo was said to be cut from about the middle of the game and that felt right. Everything has a solid weight and a sense of difficulty from which death can be learned and improved. It also features wonderful character art, leading to a boss fight that is super tasking, and requires everything you’ve learned to be put into action. This has all the makings of a great indie game and is well worth following till completion.
Sail away, sail away, sail away, in Sail Forth from Festive Vector, a sailing adventure game with customizable sailboats. The few featured in the demo varied the shape of the ship and where the cannons were located on it. We chose the vessel Sakana, which held three cannons on the port and starboard sides of the craft, with a big bulky frame that would deter pirates and make navigating the waterways more cumbersome. It was smooth sailing mostly. The direct lineage to The Legend of Zelda The Wind Waker (2002) is clear in the game’s convincing aesthetic portrayal of the cartoony seas. Most importantly the water looks good and invites us to explore far-off reaches just on the corner of our periphery. We talked to some sea-dwelling creatures, exploited some pirates and boarded their ships, and blew some island-bound boxes to smithereens, collecting their resources. Playing as a second ship, and coming back to the game later, it became clear that ship choice will account for a lot in your experience, and choosing the right one for the right mission will be paramount. We wish Festive Vector fair winds and following seas, as their ambition is as evident as their love for what they have made. In the cutest gaming peripheral idea at this year’s show, the Switch version was played with two joycons, attached to a captain’s wheel, further evidence of how creative and cute this enterprise is.
Spirit Swap: Lofi Beats to Match-3 To
Spirit Swap is so warm and charming: queer witches and demons hang out and swap brightly colorful match-3 puzzles to some lofi beats. “Swap it out / Change Your Mood, make it happier / And if you can’t, that’s okay / Try again real soon,” goes the lyrics to one of artist Meltycanon’s featured songs, which tells the audience what they need to know about the game. This is inclusive work by developer Soft Not Weak, a small team, who we chatted with at their booth while basking in the warmth of their passion project, which shows such clarity and finesse, not reinventing the wheel of the match-3 puzzle game, but making that wheel so much more inclusive. It’s really a lovely game. At the show, a story mode and a competitive puzzle-fighter type mode were shown. The story promises charming characters with big personalities and a hang-out puzzler that also feels like a romance fantasy visual novel, in a good way. What makes a good puzzle game is as abstract as it is rigidly precise: it needs to feel right and if the vibe can just immerse you in sliding a puzzle around and the feedback is good, you’ve got all the pieces figured out. That’s how it feels for Soft Not Weak’s indie darling puzzler, combining light rhythmic play with low-stakes matching mechanics that rightfully charmed everyone on Kickstarter with its heartfelt and earnest approach to a genre that can often feel so mechanical. This will mean so much to the right person.
Tower Defense games have a static reputation. You’re working along Defense Grids. Or you’re channeling balloons through a series of dart-throwing moneys. Your engagement in those games is usually limited to tower placement, still limited by the sub-genres origins in base-building Real Time Strategy games. Stellar Watch asks an important question for the genre: why limit ourselves? Utilizing a super-minimal space-bound aesthetic, the player builds tower installations around their starship in order to protect it from incoming space invaders. Meanwhile, the player can rotate their craft and the orientation of their towers, while the invading geometry changes routes and pathways every time they approach, in swirling and unpredictable patterns. This adds several layers to standard Tower Defense designs and the developers have wrapped their new ideas in an instantly appealing and minimal look that also sets the game apart.