PAX West 2023: Some Cool Games I Saw

It was a bit of an awkward year for PAX West. It was the largest crowd they’ve had since 2019, but the show was split between Seattle’s old convention center, the Arch, and their new one a block away, the Summit. Nintendo Live was also going on in the same area, which I didn’t go to because I don’t need merch. This meant the crowd and content of PAX was split three ways, making everything feel a bit smaller. Factor in multiple security checkpoints and escalator rides and it gave a feeling that once you were in the Arch or Summit, you had to stay there and justify your time.

The upside of this mix is that I waited in fewer lines for demos, but it also meant I was playing a lot of the same demos on repeat. I feel like I played fewer games than last year, but what I did play I got a lot of time with. Below is a list of thirteen games that really stood out to me at this year’s PAX West (and stay tuned for even more thoughts coming in a special episode of the Daydreamcast.)

Under the photo for each entry I’ve put a link to their Steam page. If the game currently has a demo or is in early access I’ve put a little star next to it.

The Invincible

The Invincible. Dev. Starward Industries.

Look, I don’t know how much of this article is going to be “I liked this game because it connects to one of my many niche interests, past and present,” but I can think of five other entries with that theme so roll with it.

This is to set-up a statement that I have a soft spot for speculative fiction novels from the 60s-80s. I had a Michael Crichton phase, I had an Isaac Asimov phase (who also wrote great limericks). One book I always saw grouped with those works, but never read was the 1964 novel The Invincible by polish author Stanislaw Lem.

And here we have an adaptation of that novel done by polish studio Starward Industries. The 20 minute demo I played was dripping in authentic retro-future hard science atmosphere. The tech was all analog and purposeful. The characters spoke like scientists and solved problems as such. I felt immediately immersed and thrown back to reading The Andromeda Strain in my middle school library. Sounds of the outside world were muffled because of the player character’s bulky space suit. Gadgets that detect lost crewmates and metallic structures beeped and blooped with this crunchy audio.

I’ve never been into these kind of walking-sim horror games, and it remains to be seen how the game handles the novel’s few set pieces, but I will say that the demo I played did end on an moment of ambivalent horror that left me wanting more. Because the oldest, and best, story of sci-fi horror will always be “We’re not alone, and what’s out there doesn’t want us here.”

Roman Sands Re:Build

Roman Sands Re:Build. Dev. Arbitrary Magic.

Roman Sands Re:Build is a horror game, but you don’t realize it until the full weight of the premise sets in. You wake on this isolated island that is home to only a resort that’s fallen into disrepair. In the lobby you find four baby boomers that admonish your lack of professionalism and present you with a long list of petty needs they need fulfilled. Each time to move to a different part of the resort the in-game clock advances and soon it is midnight and you return to the beach, where a bright light envelops you…and brings you back to the start of the day.

That’s right. This game is about being caught in a time loop where you are the sole servant to a group of people who’s needs will, quite literally, never be satisfied. You are trapped in the role of customer service, and I can’t think of things much scarier.

First point of comparison to the game’s art style will be Danganronpa. But where that game has bold colors and thick outlines, Roman Sands is fuzzier. It feels like a visual novel that ran through the wash then was left out in the sun. The art style shifts around a lot, but none of it feels incongruous. The four guests of the resort are all shades of scumball I’ve had to interact with in previous career and I feel immediate kinship with the writers.

What Roman Sands offers most of all is a surreal puzzle of what the hell is even going on. I thought I had an idea loose though it was, but that was kicked to the curb when I finished the demo and was greeted with a forlorn staticky voice, the only piece of voice acting, who tells me “You need to wake up. Your cow died last night. I’m sorry.”

I gotta play this game and find out what that means.

Ebenezer and the Invisible World

Ebenezer and the Invisible World. Dev. Play on Worlds.

Last year I did a project of watching as many Christmas Carol adaptations as I could in the month of December. You can hear a chronicle of my thoughts on that endeavor on that podcast I do (not that one). I now consider myself a expert on the ghost story in prose, so naturally I had to look at the PAX demo that takes the classic morality tale and turns it into…a metroidvania?

The premise actually works well enough, in a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen/Penny Dreadful kind of way. Some time has passed since Scrooge’s good turn, but he find he’s still haunted by the lingering spirits of those damned the same way Jacob Marley was. Scrooge resolves to put these spirits to rest by performing their unfinished business for them, while also culling the population of wicked spirits that are infesting London.

Admittedly the gameplay is your typical metroidvania affair, and I didn’t see much that reinvents that wheel. Really the most triumphant aspect of the game is at no point did I question that I was playing A Christmas Carol sequel where Ebenezer Scrooge is Danny Phantom, and I think that’s because the devs did their homework. They talked me through how they they meticulously researched 1800s London in order to capture the proper Dickensian” tone and that comes across in the warm backgrounds and the detailed descriptions for every enemy, item, and character.

It all kinda clicks into place and I think the game deserves attention for that.

Hidden Deep

Hidden Deep★. Dev. Cogwheel Software.

The ocean floor scares me, being underground scares me, walls of sentient flesh scares me. So Hidden Deep pretty much ticks all the boxes by being about exploring the ruins of a deep-sea mining base that tunneled too deep into the ocean floor and found walls of sentient flesh.

The game mitigates this triple-whammy of terror through smart gameplay tools. You get a free-use grapple-gun for lowering or rising out of sheer, dark holes in the ground. Misjudge a jump and your character could plummet down one of said holes and leave a damp, red impact point. The insectoid creatures of the depths can kill you swiftly and suddenly if not given respect. These kind of sudden deaths admittedly got some unintentional laughs from me and other players, but it felt like a needed reprieve from the tension, especially since death seems mostly consequence free (best I can tell is end of each stage you’ll get a rank over how many times you died).

What really made me stand attention at the Hidden Deep booth was when my little soldier scout was suddenly joined by two engineers, additional playable characters with their own abilities that I had to swap to to solve certain puzzles. I spoke with the lead developer of Cogwheel Software and he said he’s currently testing multiplayer so that each of these character classes can be controlled by their own player. That mixed with the careful exploration and darkly funny deaths makes me think that this game would be wildly fun with a like-minded group once it leaves early access.

Captain Wayne-Vacation Desperation

Captain Wayne-Vacation Desperation★. Dev. Ciaran Games LLC.

Boomer Shooters/Movement Shooters/DOOMlikes/Whatever You Want to Call Them are back in a big way in the indie scene. FPS games that are tired of cover and regenerating health and realistically modeled military weaponry. These games beg to go back to a time in shooters where you just charged 2D sprites in a 3D environment while firing off ten different forms of projectile weapon.

And yet it feels like something is still missing. Most of these revival-era games have blurred together for me because they’re all using the same color-pallets and imagery of demons, robots, or demon robots. Where are the boomer shooters reviving the more cartoony feeling of something like Chex Quest?

Well that’s what Captain Wayne is and it’s bright colors and Wario Land attitude feels like a breath of fresh air. Captain Wayne is a pirate in hot pink suit with a shotgun for an arm looking to dispense bombastic justice across the seven seas. The game moves blisteringly quick, even amongst it’s genre. You want to get in close because your starting weapons are a shotgun and a surprisingly robust melee system. Shooting anyone sends them flying, causing you to chase them down like a soccer ball for a follow-up attack. The mania really builds and it was some of the most fun I’ve had playing a movement shooter in a long while.


Gunbrella★. Dev. doinksoft.

I like deleting health bars with combo strings as much as the next guy, but sometimes I yearn for the original Castlevania feeling of just needing to get one good hit in. Gunbrella has that feeling, only instead of a whip you have a shotgun so it’s extra fun.

Gunbrella feels less bombastic than it’s portmanteau name and Devolver Digital publishing would lead you to believe. It has a somber tone mixed with earthy colors that makes the moments of sudden shotgun violence really pop on the screen. Now there’s pixel blood seeping into the pixel floor and I suddenly find myself likening the main character to a 16-bit version of Joel from Last of Us.

The Gunbrella of Gunbrella is a pretty nifty tool. Off the bat it lets you block enemy shots, glide, and air dash in any direction. The movement is tight and I quickly found myself looking for secret paths. Rooftops accessible if you wall jump here and dash there. It aides the feeling of power in combat as you get off clean shots in-between some swift platforming.

It may sound like the gameplay is clashing with the tone and really its the opposite. It means that in moments of downtime you can take the game as quick or slow as you like. Explore this broken-down world, talk to the NPCs, drink in the sublime pixel-art. Just know when you hit the combat, you gotta be ready to pull that trigger.

Big Boy Boxing

Big Boy Boxing★. Dev. Soupmasters.

I love Nintendo’s Punch-Out. I love the NES original, the SNES sequel with a less memorable player-character, and the ever-vibrant Wii version. It’s one of those games with incredibly simple mechanics that the devs push to their absolute limit in increasingly memorable boxing matches.

So imagine my surprise that there’s an indie dev out there who decided we had enough Wario Land successors and decided to make a Nintendo revival for me specifically!

Big Boy Boxing uses animation reminiscent of a CDI game (I say that affectionately) to bring to life characters from a variety of themes: A supervillain with multiple robot limbs, a stack of toddlers in a trench coat, and what I’m almost certain is just Darla Dimple from Cats Don’t Dance. The energy and personality is there for this to be a the Punch-Out game Nintendo isn’t giving fans.

But unfortunately the demo I played (multiple times) featured an odd input delay for dodges and the game’s equivalent of the star punch. It led to me taking a lot of hits that didn’t feel like my fault, and the frustration was amplified by the game only giving the player three bits of health before they KO and have to restart the match. It’s hard to describe without you playing the demo yourself, which you can on Steam right now. It just doesn’t feel mechanically tight like a Punch-Out should and it’s making me wary when I should be foaming at the mouth to play this front to back.

Sucker for Love: Date to Die For

Sucker for Love: Date to Die For★. Dev. Akabaka.

Last year I interviewed developer Akabaka about the much teased, but at the time unrevealed sequel to his survival-horror dating-sim Sucker for Love. Oddly enough, the moment after we finished the interview was the moment Akabaka was informed that the reveal trailer for Sucker for Love 2: Date to Die for had dropped. So at PAX 2023 I was finally able to play the demo and put to form the ideas the developer told me a year ago.

Date to Die for leans more into the “survival-horror” of “survival-horror dating-sim.” The first game was just three small rooms and mostly focused on following directions for increasingly complex rituals. This game is about harvesting the materials for said rituals within a dilapidated, cultist-infested house currently caught between two dimensions. Now you have an entire 20 room house to explore and the slow opening of any door could reveal horrors for you to fight or escape. It feels less tongue-in-cheek than the previous game, though your target of affection is still a goat-headed eldritch MILF with noticeably sweaty cleavage.

Actually, that’s a neat point of interest. The previous game played the dating-sim aspect for laughs. Your protag was only interested in getting smooches, but here your protagonist actually wants to form a romantic relationship with fertility goddess Rhok’zan (pronounced like the Police song). Rhok’zan’s maddening sexual appeal isn’t driving female protag Stardust wild with lust because Stardust is confirmed asexual. It is the ultimate odd couple pairing, and I find their interactions cute.

Toy Tactics

Toy Tactics★. Dev. Kraken Empire.

I played a lot of hours of RTS games when I was younger. For a while, they were practically the only games I played. Which is a shame because I was never good at them. My brain totally forgot the resource management part of many of them in favor of making a big blob of units to splash against my enemy’s defenses.

That’s probably why I gravitated to Toy Tactics. It’s a series of combat scenarios where your army is already assembled. You don’t need to farm resources or research tech trees. You just have to command your mighty blob. For this Toy Tactics has a nifty brush mechanic where you literally paint your unit formations. The game encourages chaos in the same way as Totally Accurate Battle Simulator. Once the fray has begun you feel compelled to sit back stop issuing orders. At this point in time you can start slinging spell powers that have unlimited use, but also damage your own units, which furthers the chaotic feel.

The game is promising five factions, each with their own cadre of unique units and play styles, a sandbox mode where you can plonk down as many soldiers as you want until your CPU catches fire. It very much tickles my inner child.

Enter the Chronosphere

Enter the Chronosphere. Dev. Effort Star.

Time only moving when you move is a neat mechanic, right? I’m sure we all know at least one game in the last decade that’s done it. Are any of those bullet-hell roguelikes? Because Enter The Chronosphere is and it’s a lot of addictive fun.

Taking the hectic nature of bullet-hells and turning it into effectively a turn-based game invites some neat choice making for the player. In Enter the Gungeon you could shoot and reload while on the move, but here each is a deliberate, seperate action that causes the projectiles of your space cowboy-themed foes to draw ever closer.

As I played my eyes were swiveling around the screen assessing what was far enough away to disregard, who was about to shoot, and which of my two guns had enough ammo to return fire. The demo featured three playable characters, each of which can evolve their kit in standard roguelike fashion. Also bullets ricochet, so if you’re adept at advanced geometry you can get off some satisfying trick shots to thin the horde gradually coming for your throat.

No Longer Human

No Longer Human. Dev. 0801 LLC.

I don’t think I’m going to write a lot here because this game is all flash and I think analyzing it beyond that is a losing game.

No Longer Human does roto-scoped animation with a vector graphics twist. It looks like a short off Love+Death+Robots that wanted to prove animation can be sexy.

Ostensibly the game is a side-scrolling beat ’em up where you play a catgirl with a laser-scythe on a rampage to “kill the world.” Beyond that I had no clue what was happening, just that when I pushed buttons cool stuff happened with great feedback and a pulsing soundtrack.

I don’t need anything more that that. I just want to push buttons at it more.


Biomorph. Dev Lucid Dreams Studios.

My history with the game Spore is well documented on this website, but something we never talked about was all the odd Spore spin-off games. In particular, the gritty ARPG Darkspore. That game tried to mix the evolution and body-part swapping mechanics of Spore‘s creature stage and make it into Diablo.

Biomorph isn’t an ARPG, it’s a metroidvania, but I feel like I could prove the someone at Lucid Dream Studios at least played Darkspore. It’s mostly in the character designs, how creatures look like different bits mixed together and how they turn into genetic goo when you slay them. It has a dark biopunk aesthetic that can’t shake a mildly cute art style.

I’ve talked too much about Darkspore, what Biomorph really is is Mario Odyssey. Catgirl protagonist Harlo has been subjected to some alien science that allows her to absorb and shapeshift into other creatures. Every enemy in the game offers a new set of abilities for traversal, combat, and puzzle solving and that fuels the non-linear metroidvania progression. The devs told me that they didn’t want exploration tied to beating a boss and getting a new tool. Instead they want players to get to an obstacle and going on a hunt for an enemy that could overcome it.

This is all pushed along by hand-drawn cutscenes and a town building mechanic where you can customize buildings to your preferences and hey! I found another Spore comparison.

Animal Well

Animal Well. Dev. Shared Memory.

Animal Well doesn’t need my coverage because it’s already getting a big publicity bump from the 7 million subscriber YouTuber that’s publishing it.

The issue is I think Animal Well is the best game I played at PAX West this year.

I have a soft spot for the incredibly small body of work by Éric Chahi, a French game designer best known for Out of this World and Heart of Darkness. Those games focused on immersive movement and punishing gameplay as players were dropped into alien worlds and meant to figure out what did what through trial and error.

Animal Well carries that same vibe. Your character is he embodiment of “just a little guy,” freshly hatched in the titular Animal Well looking for a way out. No area is really locked off to you and there’s no objective marker to tell you where to go. I played the demo three times and each took me down wildly different paths that all felt like the main one. Also each time I played I built knowledge of the various predatory creatures and specters of the well and how to avoid them.

Also like Chahi’s work, Animal Well features these gorgeous full screen tableaus separate from the player’s interaction. One section I was crawling through a tunnel and passed over a group of colossal herons stepping through the subterranean river catching fish. Later, you enter that same room from a different entrance and have to contend with the herons. Another room has a series of bubbles drifting up from below that you can use as platforms, but if you drift down you can find the fish that are blowing said bubbles. It’s all connected and organic and makes the game a delight to explore.

A lot of the games I played at PAX were revivals or takes on existing genres. A modern metroidvania, or boomer shooter, or a fan love-letter to an abandoned franchise. Animal Well feels like something plucked from time. A video game hipster could trick me into thinking this was an obscure game released on the original Apple Macintosh that was wildly ahead of its time, and I think something that feels that way is wildly special.

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