Now that PAX is said and done, the cumulative feeling of the year’s show weighs in our minds. How would we describe it succinctly? PAX is PAX again. It’s more PAX, even, than it has been lately. It’s spread out over different buildings, a specialized Nintendo event, and the moment-to-moment feeling of PAX is fractioned into what building you are in and what games you are seeing. You can run back and forth at your own peril, between the old Seattle Convention Center Arch room and the spacious new Summit building, but you’re not going to see everything at once.
What is striking is that much of what was at the show was our first contact with some demos and hands-on experiences. This is a transformative year, wherein E3 went on hiatus, and will now have to come back as something totally different. There is not a sense that PAX is overshadowed by something just months before it. There is just PAX West and PAX East and those are your primary trade and consumer-facing conventions. You can still go to CEX and now many reveals are handled by direct-to-consumer YouTube videos, so the part where the public really gets to contact games and their developers is at these consumer trade shows.
There is seemingly still endless money to throw at the event. So many games have lavish booths. There are still bizarrely huge showcases for social and casual games with nobody playing them, right next to mainstay franchise properties with hour-long lines. The overall impression still overwhelms, as the washed and unwashed masses flood the floor and there is this general activity of hype and conspicuous consumption, everyone wants to have everything, and they will travel booth-to-booth for pins and videogame ephemera.
The press job at PAX continues to feel useful but certainly does not feel like the most important aspect. When you go into Nintendo Live and see the glowing faces of the kids in line to get one picture with their favorite character, that feels more true to what the energy of PAX could be. We are long past the eras of booth babe concepts, but why aren’t many other booths attended by appropriate characters of their franchises? Nintendo Live feels like a preemptive sketch of Disney Land and PAX can feel more like that as it goes.
Some of the best games you end up seeing are the games that nobody knows about yet. You can read my impressions of PAX’s Indie Rising booths, my favorite thing to cover at PAX. This year’s selection had some great city-builder concepts, a stunningly minimalist tower-defense game, and all kinds of creative vanguard games with friendly developers in attendance for interviews. The best game I played at PAX is Mario Wonder. It’s just not fair when Nintendo shows up as Nintendo and you get an early hands-on of a Mario game that offers the most change that series has felt in over a decade. You can read about my experience with Nintendo Live, where my daughter had the best time of her Summer. The best way to navigate the games of any PAX, though, is to seek out the great Indie Darlings who are about to make a big splash on Steam and are flying under the press coverage radar. Our friend Murph, host of our terrific games podcast The Daydreamcast, wrote about all the indie games that defined the show — titles like Animal Well and Captain Wayne are also two of the coolest games I saw at the show.
This leaves one job to do! It’s now my mission to filter through everything else, to check the stock of small, medium, and big games, and come up with 10 more impressions that round out our PAX coverage. Here are my 10 PAX experiences that have stuck with me long enough to justify having them here. These are not the best games of PAX, nor the coolest, nor the most Indie, these are the games I’m still thinking about now.
Persona 3 Reload & Persona 5 Tactica
Sega and Atlus provided the same amount of machines for Persona 3 Reload and Persona 5 Tactica, a hilarious choice when you saw what the lines were like for them. Persona 3 Reload featured two demos, New Moon (dungeon-crawling tower exploration) and Full Moon (the climax to the game’s first chapter with a boss battle). After two hours in line (you see why I must cover it now), I played the more cinematic boss battle. Having just played the remaster of Persona 4 Golden (2020), everything clicked right into place. They advised this was the mode for experienced players but it was practically easy.
The Priestess arcana is a cool boss in a cool area: you’re on a train and everything is infused with cool green while a sharp hip-hop song loops in the background. It’s a hell of a vibe. Having not played Persona 3, it’s hard to make exacting one-to-one comparisons, although I’ve now watched a couple of videos of this section, and the clean-up job just sharpens up all the rough corners. The new presentation is immaculate. Funny thing, but the menus and dialogue windows are beautifully drawn and colored, which is great, because this sort of RPG prioritizes these screens. The battle felt fantastically balanced too, as our small team had just enough oomph to battle through. Persona 3 already seems to me a very stylish game but Reload makes it look and feel so damn cool. I had a long line and also watched several people play through the dungeon-crawling mode, and my curiosity was absolutely piqued. As I’m a new player to this game, I can offer one thing for sure: this is an incredibly exciting way to access this game for the first time.
Persona 5 Tactica is also a delightful and overlooked surprise. Tactical RPGs and strategy games are so in right now. And always in with my heart. Persona 5 (2016) seems to be ripe for outside iteration, as Atlus continues to make odd-ball spinoffs ahead of making Persona 6. It’s a fun thing conveyed in a totally new art style, somewhere between extra-cartoonish and chibi-styled: cute small characters who are mostly made up of their big heads. The demo was straightforward: it previewed a mechanical interaction with the turn-based mechanics. It shows us how to take cover. How to attack. How to not attack and power up our next moves. Then we just take some enemies out. This could be a great little side-story about getting the Phantom Thieves back together for more turn-based shenanigans. Feels good to me but need to see more. There is perhaps no franchise that better suits the direct interests of the PAX audience than Persona, so both of these felt like the quintessential PAX demos, tremendously long lines and all.
I just had to play it again. And again. I kept looping back in line. That’s a rare feeling in a convention where you’re just trying to see a large enough quantity of games that you can write about a good selection of them. But what is a better test than having to keep it going? This is also the standard arcade fighting games are based on. Do you get back in line and keep feeding your quarters into that machine? Absolutely in this case. I paired off with another attendee, whom I hadn’t met, and stuck with them over several sessions, as we got back in line together and discussed how fluid it felt, how properly new-generation it felt, how much the new Heat-meter rewards active aggression, and a super fun playstyle. I had such a good time experiencing this game one-on-one with someone who I’ll only ever have interacted with over Tekken 8.
It brought me back to the arcades of my youth and was the most purely energizing game of the show. It looks utterly fantastic: every character has weight and as Tekken always does, it has such a fair negotiation between accessibility and mastery. You can jump right in but as you keep playing and come to understand the Heat gauge and how these new systems work, it opens up new mechanics and ways of fighting. Sometimes all you’ve got to say is damn this game feels good, tight, and fresh, and that’s how Tekken 8 is, such a holistically solid iteration on Tekken. This feels like a new start. Fighting games are so back.
Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name
Bottlenecking Yakuza 6 (2016), Yakuza: Like a Dragon (2020), and the forthcoming Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth, The Man Who Erased His Name is being pitched as a Yakuza playground, wherein original series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu thought he was out and they pulled him back in. It wasn’t enough for Kiryu to fake his own death, as he’s now drawn back into a series of escalating conflicts across Osaka and Yokohama while undertaking the guise of a secret agent. There used to be this terrible wait between the launch of Japanese titles and their arrival stateside. Like a Dragon offers a different kind of solution to this old problem: it will launch only with audio in Japanese and subtitles in English, then add further support in later patches. The next step is just to confidently stick with this and not offer a patch – we’re in a better place for “import” games, however, than we’ve ever been.
On show was yet another area, a kind of Yakuza playground called The Castle. This is a marvelous Yakuza-in-minature scenario. There’s a proper casino with table games, a fight club, and a cabaret club where you can interact with, uh, several FMV hostesses… videogames! It’s a wonderfully weird way to create a bottleneck episode between game continuities and to create a more freeform offshoot that skill captures all the reasons folks love Yakuza games. This also marks the series’ return to its formal action-adventure components and free-flowing combat, taking turn-based play back off the shelf. It feels good being thrown into the deep end in a demo, with all the powers unlocked already, fighting a group of assassins as a man dressed as a chicken in a brutal cage match. Meanwhile, nearby my station, a cosplayer dressed as Goro Majima was playing as Goro Majima in his own cage match, which was the best thing I saw at PAX.
Quilts and Cats of Calico & Wingspan Oceania
I’ve thought about Quilts and Cats of Calico more than any other game at PAX. Why? For one: it’s sickeningly cute. Adapted from the popular boardgame Calico (2020), the objective is to craft the coziest possible quilts, which naturally attract the cutest possible cats. So you’ve just got to make a quilt cozy enough that a cat will come and rest on it. It is so thoughtful and cute, with deepening complexity as you match color, patterns, and placement on the board, but also gives you this time to think between turns, while you try and make a better quilt than your opponent. The proper full game will even have a story mode.
The developers have previously adapted the popular birding game Wingspan (2019), which is a big communal hit with some of our dear friends at The Twin Geeks. I also tried their new Wingspan expansion, Oceania. It’s really such a lovely game, so relaxed, beautiful card art of all these birds, and made absolutely no sense to me under the pressures of the show floor. It’s absolutely sold me on playing Wingspan, either by boardgame or videogame. Likewise, I’m now in the market for both versions of the Calico game, the boardgame for which is designed by Flatout Games, who also made Cascadia (2021), which I’ve been playing all year and desperately want a virtual adaptation of, too. It’s also been a big year in cats: we recently got a gorgeous, shiny black cat who acts as my daughter’s best friend… thus, we’re in the market for all cat-related items, generally. This Calico game will be an instant buy. I’m already head-over-paws for it.
It’s about timing, perhaps: I played the game just after a service for a beloved lost family member, where we displayed all the quilts they made for everyone over all of the pews in the church. All their love manifested in these fabrics and the memories created in them. So, we get to this point where Quilts and Cats of Calico stirred up this emotional reaction. Feels tied into this experience I’m having all week. Of remembering. Thinking about what the things we make and leave behind tell about our experience and what we love in this world.
Haven’t you played Chicory: A Colorful Tale? That is a deeply lovely game. Not just a reinvention of classic Zelda mechanics, tapping into the player’s creativity and want for expression in the gameworld, but also a game with beautiful messaging and a heart that thumps all the way through.
Beastieball seems to be designed of the same quality stuff. You’re the coach of a volleyball team of catchable monsters which is like training a team of Pokémon but it’s volleyball. The mechanics are super cool, actually: the volleyball is turn-based, and every volley and pass is a turn-based decision. How you want to use your resources and the abilities of your volleyballing Beasties, adds adaptive strategy and choices to matches. You get to use these Beasties in the matches, which are really well-conceived characters, and the game seems to also be generating new ones and versions with alterations of the ones you have seen.
The game also just looks terrific. Really good art. Great in motion. It feels like yet another expressive and highly creative world will pour out of the game, not necessarily to Pokémon what Chicory was to Zelda, but something new and great in its own right. This is one of those surprising games you just know nothing about and really warms your spirit, to see bright and cheerful indie games with truly terrific aesthetics and great new ideas for play you haven’t seen in this way before. This is already of such a quality that its success with an audience feels assured.
Rift of the NecroDancer
What if Brace Yourself Games took their expertise in finely finessed rhythm games and visualized them as all the best things: Rhythm Heaven; Punch-Out!; and Harmonix-style falling note mechanics? It’d be fucking great! That’s Rift of the NecroDancer. It’s fucking great!
Brace Yourself Games seems to be unwilling to compromise. They created a terrific original rhythm game then got to adapt those same mechanics into a series no less notable than The Legend of Zelda. Their development philosophy is a cozy bedfellows to Nintendo’s own approach. Accessibility and direct engagement are at the core of their systems-first approaches.
The new game absolutely rules. Even the Frequency (2001) esque falling note segments are inventive. They have multiple stipulations about how the falling enemies influence the button presses. A bat, for example, will register as a regular note, then go immediately over to the direction it’s facing, for an easy one-two segment. It feels like this simple opening up of rhythm mechanics and creating diverse visualizations, like a delightful Rhythm Heaven yoga minigame and a Punch-Out! boss battle means that anything else is on the table and Rift might just riff on all your favorite classic timing-based games.