After 350 gameplay videos and 60 playthroughs, I've selected my list of indie games you should check out, both at PAX and on-line.
With PAX Prime coming up in just one short week, I know the number one question that is on everyone’s mind: “Casey” — this is you talking — “with so many things to see and do, how will I make sure that I don’t miss out on the coolest indie games?”
“Funny you should happen to ask that question just now, while I’m typing this article,” — this is me talking now, not you — “because I was just about to tell you all about the games I played while reviewing entries for the Indie Megabooth!”
Yes, it is true, this year I watched 350 gameplay videos and played through 60 indie games to help select the entries that would appear at the gamescom and PAXIndie Megabooths. Despite the lighthearted nature with which I began this article, where I pretended you were asking me a question even though we both know that I cannot really hear what you say because you do not enunciate, I took my responsibilities as reviewer extremely seriously.
I am a lucky so-and-so, as people go, because I have only ever once worked on a indie game that was submitted to a judging process, and that one time, it was selected (Sushi Bar Samurai in the inaugural PAX 10). Good fortunes such as this should be payed forward, and given some of the disturbingly unprofessional things I have heard about other judging processes (not mentioning any names), I feel like anyone given the responsibility of reviewing other people’s creative work should treat the matter with the utmost care and respect.
To that end, I began by recusing myself from reviewing Ernesto RPG, Mewgenics, Miegakure, Sub Rosa, and The Talos Principle. I know at least one developer on each of those projects, and I felt that it was not possible for a reviewer to be impartial to a game if they know any of the people making it. Happily, many of those games were selected by the Megabooth team without my input, so you will be able to play them at PAX Prime anyway.
After spending a solid two days watching gameplay videos from the remaining ~340 entries, I selected 60 games to play over the course of the judging month. I tried to give each game as much room to succeed as the game’s complexity warranted, and spent multiple hours with a game whenever I felt I could not make a reasonable decision without playing a substantial portion. Despite my best efforts, I am sure there are things I missed, but on the whole I think I was able to give an honest review of the merits of each title I played.
In the sections below, I have collected my favorite games from the Indie Megabooth submissions. Since my opinion was only one of many used to decide which games would be included, and because some teams don’t end up being able to demo at PAX for logistical reasons, not all of the Megabooth entries I liked will be shown at PAX. I put games that won’t be on the show floor in their own section at the end of this article, so you can still check them out on-line. I am sure the developers would very much apprectiate it if you did!
Please note that all of the screenshots shown here are ones that have previously been released publicly, usually in the developers’ own presskits. Many of the builds submitted for Megabooth judging were still in the beta stage, so I wanted to respect the developers’ privacy and not talk about or show anything that they had not publicly revealed themselves. Similarly, one of the games that I wanted to feature here has still not been publicly announced, so it will have to wait for a future blog post.
Finally, I would like to thank Ben Hollis and Eva Funderburgh for joining me for a weekend playtesting session during the judging. Without their help, I would have been unable to review any of the multiplayer-only entries, two of which turned out to be top picks of mine.
Things are confusing these days. With Twitters and Facebooks and Instagrams and all these things that the kids use, with their weird grammars and their baggy pants and their rap music, it can be hard to navigate all the social medias. So in order to keep things simple and accessible for you, I’ve narrowed down the Megabooth “must see” list to five games that you can commit to memory, using mentalist techniques if necessary:
Screencheat. If you’ve ever played splitscreen FPS deathmatch, you know what “screen cheating” is: instead of playing fair and looking only at your window, you sneak a peak at your opponent’s window so you can see where they and where they’re going. Samurai Punk’s shooter Screencheat takes this Achilles heal and brilliantly turns it into the basis for an entire game.
Unlike traditional FPSes, in Screencheat all the players are completely invisible. The only way to know where your opponents are is to look at their windows. This leads to a wonderfully ticklish mental process where you are constantly scanning your three opponents’ windows to try to mentally map where they are compared to where you are so you can line up a shot, all while trying to keep moving to prevent yourself from becoming an easy target.
Thankfully, the developers put real thought into the design, so Screencheat isn’t just a regular FPS with invisible players. The environment is color-coded into zones, so your peripheral vision can tell you the rough location of your opponents without fully “screen cheating”. Internal to each zone, there are a series of obvious landmarks, like statues and paintings, so that when you do look directly at another player’s window, you can triangulate them for a shot.
My only negative comment on the game was that the controls weren’t as tight as I would have preferred. In the build submitted for Megabooth review, the movement didn’t feel as nice as a high-end FPS. It’d be great if it got tuned up a bit for the final release (currently slated for October 1st), but even if not, it’s a great multiplayer game that everyone at PAX should check out, especially if you happen to visit the show floor with three of your closest enemies.
Cannon Brawl. Although I was a big fan of the early artillery games (like the C64 classic Artillery Duel), I never really liked any of the modern updates (Worms, etc.) They always seemed to expand the genre in directions that added complexity without really making the game more interesting.
But that has changed with Turtle Sandbox’s new game Cannon Brawl. Instead of focusing on absurd arrays of weapons to layer on top of a basic artillery game, Cannon Brawl takes the angle-plus-velocity mechanic and builds a slick RTS on top of it. Each side of the artillery duel now directly controls an airship which can fly around the familiar mountainous landscape, using intuitive controls to build a variety of installations, such as cannons and shields. The airships can then dock with their installations and adjust the familiar angle and velocity parameters, but once set, the installations will continue to use those settings until the next time the airship adjusts them. This leads to a more frantic and fast-paced style of artillery play than was common in Cannon Brawl’s turn-based ancestors.
In a style familiar to players of Starcraft’s Zerg, installations can only be built within a side’s sphere of influence, which itself must be manually extended. This adds a nice territory mechanic that prevents the airship-based construction from becoming chaotic (you cannot, for example, just build a cannon inside your opponent’s base). Similarly, like today’s modern hero-based RTS games, the airships themselves are selectable from a set of unlockable types that each feature their own unique abilities.
I played this game by myself, so I cannot speak to its quality as a multiplayer game, but as a single-player game, it’s a highly polished and refreshing new take on the old artillery duel format. I highly recommend stopping by the Megabooth to check it out, or if you can’t make it to PAX, you can just go ahead and buy it right now on Steam Early Access.
Ernesto RPG. I felt I shouldn’t officially vote on Ernesto RPG because I am friends with Daniel Benmergui, but I’ve been a playtester for Ernesto for several months now and I am really excited about this game. I was delighted to see that it was selected for display at PAX Prime by the other Megabooth reviewers. It’s a reductionist take on the classic RPG formula of stats, encounters, and loot, that attempts to flatten the genre down into nothing but the player’s choice of path through a series of encounters.
Daniel has been thoroughly working the design through many iterations, and I’ve played the hell out of every single one. The game as it will be demoed at PAX shows the result of the many months of thought that’s gone into it. Ernesto, the fearless adventurer, begins in an overworld map populated with a series of progressively difficult dungeons. Descending into a dungeon leads to a stack of sequential levels to be puzzled out, each with special boss monsters and environmental elements, and each providing a broadening challenge. At first, the puzzling is about getting Ernesto through the levels at all. But later it becomes about being clever and maximizing your take of XP and gold, both of which persist in the overworld.
Those of us on the beta have already started trash-talking on Twitter about who can get the most XP, a trend I bet will explode when the game is released to a wider audience. If you’re a fan of puzzles, or RPGs for that matter, definitely swing by the Megabooth and play a few rounds of Ernesto to check it out — and of course get a jump on the eventual competition.
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime. Remember the scene in Star Wars where people have to run around the Millenium Falcon, jumping into turrets to fend off a fleet of TIE fighters? Asteroid Base’s new game Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime takes that concept and wraps it up in a colorful, family-friendly two-player cooperative game about saving space bunnies from their alien-insect oppressors.
Each player mans a character that can run and climb around inside a circular starship, racing to man the turrets, engines, shields, and special weaponry necessary to survive and rescue the captive space bunnies. The game is tuned such that no stable configuration of the ship is safe and effective, so each player must constantly run between stations, continuously making quick decisions about what station is the most important one to man at any given time.
The game looks beautiful, and it feels great to play. My only complaint was that the build submitted for Megabooth judging didn’t seem to have enough depth to it to make it a long-term interesting experience for seasoned gamers. I don’t know whether the final version will push deeper in that direction, but either way, for casual family play, and more importantly for drop-in play at the booth at PAX, it’s a delightful experience. Definitely swing by and play a round if you’re traveling the show floor with a friend.
Where Is My Heart? I don’t play games on consoles these days, so I never saw the original version of Where Is My Heart when it came out on the Vita and PS3. But I immediately fell in love with the adorable graphics and clever puzzle mechanics of Where is My Heart in its newly revised PC edition.
Schulenburg Software’s platform puzzler presents familiar mechanics with a new twist: instead of the level being presented as a single, continuous image, it is instead fractured into many small images that are rearranged, like a jigsaw puzzle. Although the world behaves as if it were its original, continuous self, you must view and make sense of it through the rearranged presentation, first mastering simple techniques like looking for split items that indicate which pieces connect, and later working with more complex mechanics that span tiles in both their original and rearranged states.
The wonderfully cute visuals provide a pleasing environment for puzzling, and the whole experience feels warm and enticing. My primary complaints with the game were the confusing level selection screen and some questionable control decisions, but some of these may well be resolved when the final version is released for PC. If you enjoy cute platformers or novel puzzlers, definitely stop by the Megabooth and play a few levels of Where Is My Heart.
In addition to the top five, there were a bunch of other games I enjoyed that are worth checking out if you’re spending some serious time at the Megabooth. I’ve included brief summaries here:
Assault Android Cactus. Gorgeous, multiplayer, wave-based, bullet-spraying action game with adorable characters. Highly polished already. Stop by the booth with your friends and play a few waves.
Close Castles. Face-paced reductionist RTS for up to four players. The submitted build was super simple and janky, but it still showed a lot of promise. The developers seem to be going full speed ahead and the PAX build is looking much more developed than what we played, so I expect the build for next week will be a lot of fun. Drop by with three friends and plan on playing a quick couple rounds if you can — it takes two or three goes to really get what’s going on and get into it.
Darkest Dungeon. Decision-based RPG with morale simulation and hybrid JRPG-ish battles. Great art style and intuitive play, but the early build submitted for the Megabooth judging took a long time to really bring strategy to the surface. Not sure if it will be possible to get the full gist of the game during a short play at the Megabooth, but if you’re into interesting takes on RPGs, you will want to check it out and consider buying into its Early Access release.
Enemy Starfighter. Traditional 3D space sim. Has a good feel to it, but the early build submitted for Megabooth judging didn’t quite reach the depth of battle intricacy and immersion of the great sims of the golden age (ie., X-Wing). But it sure looks like it’s heading that direction, so if you’re a space sim fan you should drop by the booth and check it out. I suspect the PAX build will be even further along than what I played, and it will be a great chance to talk to the devs about what’s coming in the final release version.
Nova-111. Highly polished, hybrid turn-based and real-time action-puzzle game. Some enemies move in lock-step with player movement, others move continuously, leading to a unique tactical mechanic. The build I played didn’t really seem to take things far enough for me to put this in my top 5, but it’s an interesting take on tile-based puzzling. If you’re an action-puzzle game fan, definitely stop by the booth and check this one out. It was also selected for the 2014 PAX 10, so you can check it out at the PAX 10 booth as well!
StarCrawlers. Turn-based, science fiction JRPG with beautiful artwork. The build submitted for Megabooth judging had only one playable level that the developers felt was representative of the final release, so it was impossible to judge whether or not the combat system had the kind of depth that would make this a stand-out JRPG. But whether or not it does, it’s one of the few high-quality indie JRPGs out there, and fans of the genre should definitely stop by the booth and check it out. The art is fantastic, and the combat already feels good, so the only real question is whether the depth will be there in the final version. And hey, even if it isn’t, there’s more than a few very successful JRPGs out there with shallow combat mechanics!
Spoiler Alert. Hilarious time-reversed runner. Unlike games that use rewind as a mechanic, this game just flat-out runs backwards all the time. It’s one big joke from start to finish, with hilarious animation and plays on all the standard platform game tropes. Not a whole lot of depth, but definitely a whole lot of laughs. Stop by the Megabooth and play this one when you’re in the mood for some comic relief.
Two of the games that I liked from the Indie Megabooth submissions ended up being selected for the PAX 10, and will be featured exclusively at that booth:
Framed. Comic book puzzler. Each level of this game is a series of comic panels that you must manipulate to form a successful outcome for the protagonist. Starts simple, but adds deeper panel manipulation as it progresses. A good choice for a game to play with a spouse, as it works well with multiple people thinking about and discussing solutions. Selected for PAX 10, and will not be in the Megabooth, so check it out at the PAX 10 booth.
Mushroom 11. Touch-centric action-puzzler. Coax an amorphous blob creature through a series of obstacles by erasing parts of the blob so it can regrow in other directions. Does a good job of exploring all the physical puzzles that can be constructed with its unique mechanic. Selected for PAX 10, and will not be in the Megabooth, so check it out at the PAX 10 booth.
Some of the games in the Indie Megabooth submissions that I really liked will sadly not be shown at PAX, as they were instead shown at GamesCom, or their teams were unable to attend PAX for logistical reasons. All the same, I’d highly recommend checking them out on-line when you get a chance! Some of them are really great, and you’ll be glad you gave them a look.
Gang Beasts. Mutliplayer physics-based brawler. This is literally the funniest game I have ever played. I was laughing so hard at times I was crying. Winning or losing the game was almost irrelevant, as no matter who won, the events that unfolded were so hilarious that everyone loved them. I was really hoping this game would demo at PAX, as it would make for an amazing show-floor demo, but unfortunately it was only shown at gamescom. Thankfully, it has already been greenlit, so you can look forward to the release version coming to a Steam PC near you, and get a little preview of the action by downloading an older free version of the game.
Ninjin: Clash of Carrots. Wave-based hybrid shooter-brawler. Combines classic R-Type-style forward-moving enemy wave mechanics with a close combat option to produce a delightfully playable pure action game. I never played the original iOS version, so I can’t speak to the differences, but the early PC version submitted for Megabooth judging was already a lot of fun.
Race the Sun. Surprisingly engaging 3D take on a runner. Combines the now-familiar “how far can you get” mechanic with the fast-reflex dodging of old school coin-op 2.5D racing titles. Gave me a good case of “just one more try” syndrome.
Fearless Fantasy. Batshit-crazy JRPG with enemies that are weird even for a JRPG. Has a suprisingly fun just-in-time action mechanic that I enjoyed despite normally not enjoying such elements in JRPGs. The high-level design seemed questionable, so I can’t unequivocally recommend it for genre fans, but if you are looking for a JRPG with an unusual art style, this is your game.
A Druid’s Duel. Unique, territory-centric tactics game. Move diverse unit types around to capture territory which then acts as mana for creating and powering up new units. The Megabooth build was pretty janky, as it was still very early in development, but the gameplay was very interesting and I’m eagerly looking forward to the final version.
Foiled! Extremely simple but highly engaging two-player fencing game. Players fence in 2D using simple controls, and each time a player scores a touché, in order to score an actual point they must reach the opposite corner of the screen without their opponent getting a touché en route. Not much in the way of levels in the Megabooth build, but still a lot of fun.
Future Unfolding. Gorgeous top-down action-puzzler. The art style is beautiful, but the design, at least in the Megabooth build, was highly questionable. If the design comes together in later builds, it will be a great game, but if it doesn’t, it will still offer a refreshingly unique experience via its distinctive art style.
Hyper Light Drifter. Beautiful pixel-art top-down fighter. Limited Megabooth build was highly linear, but already featured engaging gamepad play. Mouse/keyboard play was extremely rough, but will presumably be straightened out as development progresses.
Magnetic by Nature. Solid sidescroller with controllable attract/repel mechanics. Controls for the Megabooth build were a bit buggy, so it was hard to get fully into the game, but it was still satisfying to play when it worked. Assuming the controls are cleaned up for the final version, I expect the magnet movement mechanics will have a great feel.