I sometimes think that you could do a post-a-day blog just about PAX. There’s so much to see and do, so many games to try, so many panels to gush over with friends afterwards while making enthusiastic gestures, that there really isn’t enough space to get it all in. Thus it is that, until I can find a home for my fifty new articles covering every loving detail of every game (and thus vindicating my need to talk all these amazing developers’ ears off for half an hour each), I’ll have to suffice with the quick overview.
And by quick, I mean another 3000+ word article. I blame the PAX developers for being so awesome.
But but but! There’s incentive to read on. You see, I’m hosting a mini-contest where I give away 3 beta keys for one of these games. If you’d like to get a free game to try, then read to the end… or, you know, skip to the end and enter anyway!
Best Game of the Show, In My Opinion, At Least AND Best “Holy crap, this is so obviously brilliant, why hasn’t someone done this?” game – Card Hunter
As you might have guessed, like many readers, I love card games and board games. I have particular affection for deck-building games like Ascension and hybrid RPG/board games like Descent. So when I discovered that Jon Chey, former co-founder of Irrational Games and director of development for Bioshock, was making a PC Flash-based game called Card Hunter where you delved into dungeons and fought monster “figurines” on a board-like grid by using cards for your abilities, I reacted in the most natural, mature way possible: insisting that poor Mr. Chey SHUT UP AND TAKE ALL MY MONEY.
Then he told me it was free to play, and I think I heard an angel singing somewhere.
Chey and his team, Blue Manchu, have managed to hit every beat of game design perfectly with their first offering. Not since Ascension have I found a card game that handled its card systems so simply, so succinctly, and yet in such an interesting manner. For one thing, your abilities are now playing out across an entire board against enemies with their own decks – enemies played by a hilariously written GM who will seem familiar to any gaming group. The cards immediately show exactly what they do and how far they reach; you know exactly where your stalwart dwarf can move to and what the blast radius of your elven wizard’s spell is and how much damage the cleric will heal. The symbols are really easy to pick up, and anyone who’s played Magic (or indeed any “fighting” card game) will be at home in seconds. But what is truly unique about this game is how loot is handled. By defeating monsters or clearing boards, you can loot treasure chests and get equipment for your character, and it’s this equipment that builds your deck! In other words, if you’ve got a Crummy Stick as your weapon, you’re probably only going to have some short range 1-2 damage cards in your deck, but if you equip the Sword of Kings, suddenly your deck will be filled with high damage smites and the like. It’s a two-edged sword, however (ha ha); many of the best weapons will also come with “bad” cards (e.g. that Sword of Kings is heavy, so you may draw a hand to find you have a “trip over yourself” card). Some of those bad cards may just be annoying and take up space in your hand, and some of them will automatically trigger as soon as you have them in hand. Entwining the cards with the equipment a character wears is such a deceptively simple way to execute the deck-building process, and as soon as Jon Chey explained it to me, I had one of those blinding flashes of, “Where has this idea been all my life?” It really is one of the best merging of roleplaying games, board games, and card games I’ve ever seen.
If I had to think of a complaint, I think it would be, “I want more!” Chey explained that they were focusing mostly on a single-player experience on the PC, with some online competitive multiplayer and, possibly, co-op multiplayer down the line. But I’m already fired up to sit my gaming crew around an iPad and play this with them. There are so many options – actual board games, hybrid games using tablets and figurines, console versions – and luckily it sounds like they’re all being considered, if not planned. In the meantime, we will all have to wait patiently for Card Hunter. Ease the agony by checking out their website. Trust me on this… there is a reason everyone at PAX came away saying it was Game of the Show.
Best “GIVE THESE PEOPLE MONEY ON KICKSTARTER NOW, DANGIT” Game – Mental Drift
As a writer, I am always excited to see interesting things come out of the weird places where video games and words collide, and the latest beautiful piece of art born from that collision is Mental Drift by Low and Behold! Games. On display at the Extra Credits booth, this demo was of a very early prototype, so it’s not like this game is going to be made tomorrow, but the concept behind it made me excited. It’s a 2D puzzle platformer where the player can occasionally display their character’s inner thoughts as a floating piece of text, and then the words of that text can be used to solve the puzzles. Sometimes, this is as simple as using a random word as a platform to jump from place to place, but as the game progresses, the player’s thoughts become more involved and provide tools or changes to the world. For example, if the player’s thought is, “I need to bounce some ideas off someone,” you can use “bounce” to make your character bounce; the thought “I hope there isn’t a storm,” can cause a storm to happen right then and there. While the demo mostly focused on straightforward puzzles and solutions, Richard Weschler, the lead designer, explained that the intent is to have much more meaningful, emotionally challenging thoughts that would blur the lines between narrative and mechanic. There were some hints of this when one innocuous thought – “How do I avoid this?” – revealed the word “avoid” to have special properties; I can easily see stream-of-consciousness style thoughts where the player struggles with doubt and worries that he’s avoiding the reality of what’s going on, only to do, well, just that. On top of the unique mechanic, the art style is absolutely gorgeous – the demo level is set all in an autumn forest that looks like it’s out of a watercolor – and the larger narrative of thoughts being corrupted and the player’s loved one apparently going on a rampage is really intriguing.
Mental Drift is currently being partially funded by the Extra Credits Indie Fund, and if those excellent people think a game is worth paying attention to, you know it is. Having said that, Richard did say that they were going to look into Kickstarter options in the near future, and I highly recommend keeping an ear out for that and donating when the time comes. Their company website is here.
Best awesomeness towards colour blind players AND Best gravity-based puzzle game that isn’t The Bridge – Colour Bind
Actually, to be honest, that title might not even be fair… The Bridge was absolutely incredible, but Colour Bind scratches a deep and satisfying itch that I didn’t even know I had. Designed by indie developer Finn Morgan, it’s another one of those simple concepts you can’t believe hasn’t been toyed with. You control a simple vehicle with large wheels as you attempt to reach the goal of each short stage. In each stage, however, the colour of your vehicle, of other objects, of obstacles and so on will determine the flow of gravity. In one level, green things might fall downwards as normal, but red things will fall to the left, blue things will fall up, and so on. You can use coloured laser beams to change your own colour or the colour of blocks and other items. You can even combine multiple colours to get diagonal fields of gravity. As you can imagine, this opens up the door for all sorts of fiendish puzzles, from the classic, “How do I get over there?” to the evil, “And now I’m in a pit” kinds of experiences. Finn Morgan emphasizes that the game is designed to be challenging… “early ‘90s hard” were his words! Still, the initial levels manage to get you into the groove smoothly, and I definitely see this as being one of those games where you keep pushing yourself to beat one more level, or figure out one more puzzle. The achievements system is actually kind of cool in that the title screen lights up with beautiful colors the more achievements you get. And when you’re done with all that, there’s a level editor so you can take out your latent frustrations on your loved ones. You’re welcome.
One thing that deserves special mention, however, is that Finn Morgan has gone above and beyond the call of duty by taking steps to make his game playable to the colour-blind population… no small feat, considering how important colours are to this game! While he admits the initial inclination was just to resign himself to the fact colour-blind people would be unable to play, he quickly started seeking out other options, and rather than simply restricting himself to the one “right” one, he used all of them. Colour-blind players can choose to have the colours represented by specialized textures, to increase or decrease the intensity of the colors, or even reverse the colors in a sort of “negative” view. I can’t say how impressed I am to have such a sensitive and helpful attitude in a developer, and because of that, I’m going to pull out the Colour Bind pompoms and cheer on this game and Finn Morgan whenever I can.
Best sense of flight and wonder – Chasing Aurora
Nintendo and indie gaming are not two concepts that have coexisted very closely for the past few console generations (unless, like me, you believe Nintendo might secretly be an indie gaming company that somehow managed to get embarrassing amounts of money and now spends its time coming up with weird and wild experiments with it) But that looks to be changing with the Wii U, and thanks to that, we now have a fantastic game called Chasing Aurora from the same team that made And Yet It Moves. I spoke at length with Clemens Scott about this beautiful and unusual looking 2D flight sim, and discovered some interesting facts: that the game was funded by a grant from a Vienna organization, that it uses the Alps as a setting because it involves both beauty and harshness, that the plan is to create a series of games developing the world and following a distinct character arc, and that the first Wii U game, despite expectations of the contrary, is actually much more of a multiplayer experience than a moody solo game.
Clemens and his team designed the multiplayer modes of Chasing Aurora to echo the same sorts of games we all played in the schoolyard as children, but now with the soaring and plunging elements of flight involved. The controls are quite straightforward – just use the analog stick to move around in 360 degrees – but the physics of diving at high speeds or riding on wind currents feels fluid and relaxing. Our demo was of Freeze Tag, where the player who was it (me) played while watching the Wii U tablet screen while the other players used Wii controllers and played on the TV; the object was to get all three players frozen before the time ran out. It was a great use of the Wii U functionality and made for some really knucklebiting gameplay; hearing the screams of the others as I suddenly dive bombed them from above and wove increasingly desperate circles around them, trying to double back and catch them before they freed each other from their frozen states, and following the arrows on the Wii U screen to try and track them down. There’s nothing like good multiplayer, and I’d guess there’s nothing quite like this either, nothing that integrates simple childhood games, soaring flight mechanics and interesting hardware use all in one. This should definitely be a must buy when the Wii U comes out.
Best “Edumacational” Game – Code Hero
Holy crap, this is one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard of for a game. Code Hero is 3D “FPS” which also teaches you the rudimentary basics of Unity, a powerful and versatile game engine. Eschewing the usual practice of “read book on coding/Unity, beat head against brick wall, repeat until GAME DESIGNER,” the team at Primer Labs instead require players to use Unity in order to overcome certain challenges. For example, in one room, a dragon blocks the player’s path; you defeat it by opening the properties for the dragon and changing the hit points from 1000 down to 5, which can actually be killed by the little sword you can pick up. Another example is traversing a gap between you and a portal; simply spawn a block and edit its height, width, y-axis location etc in order to position it as a bridge.
The creators stress that Code Hero alone will not turn you into a Unity expert; to really make the most of it, you’re still going to have to do your homework. However, it does serve as a great starting spot; it gets you making games and levels, it gives you some of the basics, and it draws you in with fun mechanics. Learning is always easier when it’s a game, anyway! Code Hero is designed with middle-school students in mind and the lessons are based off of in-person sessions already given by some of the designers, but it’s still accessible and useful to people of any age wanting to broaden their horizons. If you’re interested, check out the website here.
Best Unholy Offspring of Bioware and Tamagotchi – Monster Loves You
A cute little game by Dejobaan Games, Monster Loves You is a really interesting take on the Choose Your Own Adventure sorts of stories and games. Centered around a monster whose parents were killed by humans, you are tasked with growing up and making your way in monster and human society. Depending on your choices, you may find your place in one or the other, be rejected by both, bring about peace or cause the final war. Monster Loves You has a very simple quest structure that will appeal to fans of multiple choice without “obvious” moral choices. In the demo, when you attempt to leave the nursery, the game presents you with a random assortment of quests; accepting one of these displays a text prompt describing the situation and asking for your response out of several options. As you might guess, those options lead to other options, and so on. What’s interesting is that the results of your choices, positive or negative, are less based on some sort of generic “good” or “bad” scale but are instead attuned to the society you’re in. For example, in monster society, you are expected to fight for yourself, get what food you can, and generally be aggressive without being a jerk; supremely altruistic actions will often get you beat up and lose you reputation among the monsters!
On top of the text-based adventure element, Monster Loves You promises to offer elements of monster-raising games as well. Depending on your responses, your monster will evolve differently; it may gain spikes or tentacles or a Cyclops eye, or any manner of other mutations. The game is still in an early state so it will take a while to see how these mutations affect the questing, but it seems like a really interesting concept.
Best Game to make you want to break out your old SNES RPGs, dang it – Dragon Fantasy II
Muteki Corporation’s sequel to their previous game, Dragon Fantasy, DFII has an entertaining twist to the whole concept of sequels and sequelitis: while Dragon Fantasy I is a homage to 8-bit RPGs and the NES, Dragon Fantasy II is done as an authentic 16 bit RPG with a combat system similar to Chrono Trigger. I’m sure if you’re like me, that already got you interested, but there’s even more here to enjoy, with a lot of entertaining pop culture references and a truly indulgent plunge into what we loved about the Super Nintendo. Every map screen is in good old Mode 7, and when I asked if there were going to be FX chip style games, president Bryan Sawler’s eyes lit up with unbridled glee. The graphics are not only authentic but beautiful; the rain effects in the town area alone made me boggle and ask if they weren’t cheating and doing it 32-bit, but it turns out the SNES (or, at least, that level of tech) was capable of more than we remember!
The other thing I like about this game series is how it both embraces the tried-and-true tropes of early ‘90s JRPGs and yet tries new things with them. For example, the main character, Ogden, used to be the starry-eyed hero who saved the day… when he was younger. Now he’s long retired, old, fat, and balding. I’m always interested in stuff that subverts or plays with the usual Young Chosen One Saves Everything narrative; what happened next? What if they don’t want to be the hero? Dragon Fantasy (I and II) promises plenty of that served with a great sense of humor.
Best Game where WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON – Project P-100
I swore I wasn’t leaving without trying at least one Wii U game, but leave it to me to try the kookiest one of them all! Project P-100 (working title) is a game where you control a crowd of what can only be described as Sentai super heroes that join forces to pummel the giant robots invading the city. Chances are that reading that sentence either totally sold you on the concept or sent you the other way screaming. What’s unusual and slightly confusing is that you really are controlling a crowd of people. Hitting the X button will cause your hoards of mask-wearing superheroes (or, in my case, mask-wearing civilians I recruited) to surround the enemy and smack it around. You can also use Unity attacks by drawing certain symbols on the Wii U pad to make your minions form a gun, a sword, or a fist. The block button also turns you into a big tub of jello. No, I don’t know WTF. All I know is that anyone who likes Viewtiful Joe is going to eat this up, and the rest of us… I think the rest of us will enjoy it too once we stop screaming at the Wii U screen that we totally meant a line, not a right angle, darn it, and where’d my battery power go, and what just exploded, and who are all these people, and why is that big robot attacking us with a drill, and, and, and…
The most interesting point, oddly enough, was at one point where I had to bypass a factory with a number code on the side. After going inside, rather than having the camera change angle, my Wii U screen activated and showed a third person view of my main hero inside the factory, where I could run around and activate a lock sequence to match the number code in order to progress. It’s a very interesting setup they have going there, but the frenetic pace does make it a bit overwhelming… in a fun way, though!
Best Game that made me want to take a shower and scrub the unclean feeling away – Tomb Raider
PLEASE NOTE: The above YouTube trailer includes images of implied sexual assault.
Oh, Tomb Raider. Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider. How can a game both get so much right and so much wrong and have them both be the same thing? Many of you are likely already aware of the big controversy (TRIGGER WARNING: rape) over the attempted rape scene, and it’s definitely a Big Thing, but now having played through the demo, I see a lot of Little Things going on that are both fascinating and offputting. The demo depicted a sequence where a pre-buttkicking Lara – injured, scared, and alone – has to navigate and survive after a shipwreck. She struggles through the underbrush, she finds shelter, she starts a fire, she has to hunt for food, she brings herself to kill and butcher the deer she shoots, and finally she manages to get through to a friend via a radio, begging him to come help her. Through it all, she sobs, cries out, pants for air, and suffers physically and emotionally every step of the way.
And the thing is, on some level, this is a really powerful success in terms of conveying genuine emotion through a video game. The writing and acting and artwork for these scenes didn’t have that blocky, “gamey” feel to them that a lot of “emotional” scenes do. This was visceral and heartfelt. I felt for Lara through every moment, I imagined how I’d feel in the same position, and during the scene where she finally manages to radio her friend, I was feeling quite choked up. It was a stunning accomplishment in terms of emotional sincerity and impact… which is why it’s a shame that it also managed to make my skin crawl with distaste. It’s one thing to have an anguished character, but to have literally every single second of the demo AND the trailer video afterwards (seen above) be filled with a character screaming, crying, whimpering and generally wallowing in anguish? Uhhh… is this really necessary? I mean, I know this is supposed to be before she turns into a pistol-wielding badass, but it’s bordering vaguely on torture porn… and worst of all, I know that if this was a MALE character, we wouldn’t be getting nearly the amount of sobs and whimpers and vulnerability in his presentation. I’m left with both the elation of seeing something done truly well, of barriers being broken in terms of how genuinely we can portray character emoting, and the disappointment that it’s being used in such a potentially negative fashion that will repulse so many gamers.
The sad thing is, the game is decent in terms of mechanics, it’s just… that’s a lot of icky baggage that I don’t feel like handling.
Sometimes it’s as much fun to watch a game being played as to play it yourself, and thus the last two games on the list. The first, The Unfinished Swan, is one of the most unique takes on the FPS perspective I’ve ever seen… it’s actually more like a FPP, First Person Painter. You play in an entirely blank white world with absolutely no detail, no shading, no nothing, and the only way to explore and reveal the world around you is to fire large black blobs of paint; these splat against the environment and help outline your surroundings. The demo level looked to be some sort of park; the black paint covered a series of stepping stones over a body of water, outlined the stone banister of an elegant staircase, revealed an old-timey lamppost and splatted upon a significant looking statue. It’s a great idea for a game, and the sharp, almost 2D contrast between white and black really sells it. See the teaser trailer here.
Life is Magic also made me take notice, if only for its nifty spin on location-based iOS and Android games. Basically, thanks to a rampant spell, our real world has been transformed into a standard fantasy setting (and oh look, Canada is a frozen wasteland. Thanks guys.) Each major city has been re-envisioned as a village or castle city or kingdom where the shops, restaurants etc. have been converted into medieval fantasy equivalents. So yes, you can go into a Starbucks in Seattle, pull out your game, and interact with a troll bartender at a tavern in the Kingdom of Seattle. Gameplay is focused into JRPG style turnbased battles where you can venture, alone or with two (on or offline) friends, into a dungeon for loot and profit. It’s difficult to tell whether the RPG combat is as fun and frenetic as it looks, and that will probably be the key as to whether this game is worth your time. However, it is free-to-play, and the idea of merging our real world with a sort of fun fantasy alternative, and actually making it meaningful in a gameplay sense, is enough to get me intrigued at the very least. If you too are interested in the seemly commingling of Foursquared and Final Fantasy, you can sign up at their website (or, *cough cough* use my referral link)
Best YEAH YEAH YEAH, WHAT ABOUT THAT CONTEST YOU MENTIONED?
I have three beta keys for Colour Bind waiting to find their way into the hands of three loyal, wonderful Geek’s Dream Girl readers! In order to enter, all you have to do is comment below! My only rule for eligibility (“More like guidelines…“) would be for you to mention in passing, out of the games I’ve covered for PAX, which interests you the most – you know, just ‘cause I like to think people are actually reading these monster articles I write! – but apart from that, comment about whatever you like! Make it funny, interesting, entertaining, insightful, whatever you like; I’ll pick the three comments that stick out to me the most and reward them with beta keys. I’ll be announcing the winners in my next article.
Which will be anime related, honest. I’m done with PAX, I swear.
… no promises.
What games interested you the most at PAX this year? If you went, what were your favorite moments? If you didn’t, what sorts of things sounded most appealing to you?