PAX Indies

The independent gaming section at PAX Australia has nearly tripled in size in two years

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PAX Indies

At PAX 2015, MEGHANN O’NEILL  met with a designer on every PC game in development. This year, she saw 82 games. Next year, she may need an assistant, especially if 2015’s trend towards local multiplayer experiences continues. The many, “couch co-op,” titles lent the PAX Rising area a definite, “good game for a convention,” feel. Passersby could duel as inflatable men, or race to transform their gelatinous bodies into weapons caches, obliterating friends and winning physical loot. It was fun. But which games could you bring home and enjoy in a more enduring fashion? We chose 12 to feature, both multiplayer and not, and reflecting a range of genres, release dates and price points.

Death Squared

[developer] SMG Studio

[release] 2016

[price] TBA

[website] smgstudio.com

Prior to PAX, SMG Studio had thrown down their gauntlet, via email, daring press to beat the demo of Death Squared. I was like, “Yeah, I’ll put you on the list.” (It was already long.) When freelance games journalist, Jason Imms, found me and said, “You have to play this with me right now,” I came to understand the nature their challenge. Despite the queue behind us, I was soon ready to kick anyone who tried to take my controller away before we’d cracked the demo.

You are a cube, red or blue, and you have to stand on a circle. Getting there requires not falling, being lasered or spiked, and appreciating that your movements may cause these things to happen to your partner. You can pass the dynamic forcefields of your colour, but they can precariously push the other cube. Or, protect your partner from your coloured laser by standing in its way. Just observe how the laser moves as cubes do, or die.

So, is this just a fun thing to do at a convention? Gosh, no. I asked for a build and played the first ten levels by myself, with one cube bound to each of my controller’s sticks. The single player experience is like patting your head and rubbing your tummy, only with hilarious explosions. My husband and I played the last ten levels together, nearly got divorced at level fifteen, but also shared many very genuine, “high five moments.”

Death Squared’s game designer and programmer, Patrick Cook, says, “It's about communication and coordinating a plan together as two, or four, people solve a puzzle they're each uniquely intertwined in.” Inherently, it’s not incredibly replayable and I’m personally hoping for a generous volume of carefully constructed levels, maybe an editor, at release. This is the convention experience I want at the con, but also in my living room.

Depth

[developer] Digital Confectioners

[release] Available now

[price] $25

[website] www.depthgame.com

Within the many multiplayer games on show at PAX this year, we saw shooting, lasering, pushing, going faster than, leaving to die and taking slow motion strikes at. But, Depth was the only game which involved eating your opponents. (Probably. There were a lot of games.) No, this is not some cute PacMan style thing where you gulp down 8-bit creatures. One moment you’re pillaging the treasures of the sea, the next you’re looking at the gore floating away from your tibia.

Oh please, play as a diver first. The idea of you doing so is filling me with glee, because I know how terrifying the experience is. The party of four descends through one of the many gorgeous levels with the loot collecting robot S.T.E.V.E. Simply protect it until it has finished its task and returns to the surface. Easy, right? Cue the music from Jaws. You’re disrupting the habitat of two sharks and their aim is to ensure none of you escapes alive.

The game supports a maximum of six players online, on these two very different teams, although you can play with bots. The humans buy increasingly better guns and the sharks evolve during the course of play. As a diver, this feels like playing a tactical first person shooter underwater. Being a wily shark, however, is an exercise in deadly grace, smashing terrain, ramming S.T.E.V.E and grabbing divers, then shaking them furiously with the mouse.

Other game modes, like Megalodon Hunt, allow players to hunt the shark together, taking its place when they kill it and competing for points. Or, play hide and seek with your fellow divers, keeping a bang stick handy for any pesky predators that happen by. So, suit up, what are you waiting for? Community Manager, William Scott, says, “The diver side is based around careful play, where positioning, gun angles, and use of equipment is crucial.” And intestines. He left that out. But, definitely intestines.

Forts

[developer] EarthWork Games

[release] 2016

[price] TBA

[website] www.earthworkgames.com

What’s even more fun than building a tipsy, ramshackle structure? Smashing it. No, wait. Smashing the other guy’s with the powerful guns and missiles you have hidden inside yours. Forts is World of Goo meets Scorched Earth. Remember, in the latter, the tense time between choosing your weapons and waiting to see if your opponent could accurately aim theirs? This is Forts. Well, that and making sure the entire thing doesn’t gracefully topple over, due to poor building or damage.  

Honestly, I’ve had so much fun playing this at home after PAX that I’m not sure where to start telling you about it. Perhaps, if I describe what you can build, you’ll start to piece together this amazing experience. So, firstly, the structure’s bracing is cheap and flimsy, but you can bolster it with metal armour and sandbags. If you place a gunman inside, it will also require an armoured door that you can open when firing and close when you are being fired at. Shields and a cable, for support, are also available.

The resources for building are mined on flat ground pieces, of which there are deliberately few. Stores increase storage capacity. Power is also required for many structures and is generated by wind turbines and the reactor you are protecting. A battery increases the storage space for energy but will explode if it is hit. The starting units you can place are machine guns to protect against missile strikes, and snipers, who can kill units in the enemy fort, with a little luck.

As well as enhancing aiming arcs for other gunmen, your snipers also paint targets for swarming missiles, which are unlocked after you build a workshop. This also unlocks incendiary mortars, which create spot fires on impact. Should you find your own fort is burning, you can press R to initiate repairs around your mouse cursor. Frequently, units and structures will be destroyed. For the really, really good weapons, build a factory. I won’t spoil them.

In your mind, have you organised all of these pieces into something that works? Batteries to the back, snipers behind armoured doors, triangular struts, missile silo out the back. Now consider the following. Is your structure high enough so that every unit’s trajectory can actually hit the other fort in a weak, or valuable, position? What happens if you are targeted with heavy fire at the bottom of your structure? Are you skilled enough at what comes next to take what you have created into battle?

Yes, during the build phase, the opponent will take pot shots at you, especially if you have clumsily left a gunman undefended. In a balanced match, however, you can be pretty sure that, as soon as you are reaching missile capacity, so is the other guy. When everyone is suitably organised, all hell suddenly breaks loose. You have to instruct your gunmen how to aim, revise their trajectories, react to incoming missiles, paint targets and rebuild whatever is falling apart. It’s madness.

Forts allows for flexible play, but what you make has to work. This is what I love about it. Designer, Tim Auld tells us, “There doesn’t seem to be a single best way of playing, which should lead to very interesting matches and high replayability.” There are also a variety of game modes, including a small (so far) single player campaign, various multiplayer challenges and a level editor. I can’t wait to build, and smash, more forts at full release.

 

Shapeway

[developer] Paperbox Studios

[release] Early 2016

[price] $10

[website] www.paperboxstudios.net

You know what I love? Level editors. We spend so much time subconsciously, or explicitly, critiquing the game spaces we navigate; this bottleneck meant I could deal with more enemies, this jump was long and I had to time it well. Remember Adventure Construction Set? I spent hours making spy mysteries for my dad. He actually played them, too. The only thing about ACS was, there was a massive time investment involved if you wanted to make something good.

By contrast, The Incredible Machine challenged you to design wacky solutions to problems like, “put the ball into the box,” and test them immediately. If your weird contraption accidentally blew the ball off stage, you would see the problem and then address it. But, TIM’s gameplay was entirely creation. Once you pressed play, you had to watch passively as cats and toasters did whatever it is cats and toasters do.

Shapeway is the platformer you solve by first organising the last several blocks of your tiny level into place, then seeing if your design works by jumping on it. If you place a block that will shatter, you may not be able to wait on it. You may need to do so to avoid the circular saw, attached to the block you placed next. Whether or not you are good at platformers will also influence how many blocks you place, with less providing unlocks and trophies.

Possible routes are endlessly flexible, though you may start to get a feel for optimal placements. If I have one criticism, it’s that there isn’t a penalty for failure as you test your levels, Finding a solution on your first try seems important, somehow. But, as Technical Director, Peter Mandile, tells us, “To me, the most important thing about Shapeway is learning through trial and error,” and it is certainly this balance of build and play that sets the game apart among PAX 2015’s many platformers

Party Golf

[developer] Giant Margarita

[release] mid 2016

[price] TBA

[website] partygolfgame.com

When I received a pre-PAX email from Giant Margarita about Party Golf with the tagline, “Less Golf, More Party,” my first thought was, “If you have to sell your game by promising less of its core concept, you’re doing it wrong.” I suppose golf games do have a reputation for being boring. This experience, however, is genuinely more like playing non-lethal Scorched Earth (I know, another Scorch comparison) while trading napalm for glitter, nukes for fireworks and setting hills to flashing lights, than actual golf.

It’s 2D and you simply aim and fire your ball at the same time as everyone else. If yours gets knocked off its carefully planned trajectory, well that’s a valid strategy on the part of your opponent. Each round, scores are tallied based on a customisable formula derived from quickest time, least shots, closest to hole and shortest journey. It has its chaotic element, but I felt as if my skill noticeably increased with practice.

Of course, if you get frustrated, you can mess around making balls enormous, extremely bouncy and eggular, to explore some contrasting physics. Is eggular really a word? Shoosh, Meghann, no-one likes “that girl” and this is a party, after all. The many options for size, weight, spin and shape of your ball only scratches the dimpled surface of options available. You can characterise AI opponents as thoughtful, twitchy or angry, for example. Well, humans too, I guess.

Party Golf certainly drew a crowd at PAX but it’s really the abundant and flexible gameplay options that will make you want to bring it home. Although early in development, the idea that you can choose precisely how you want to play underpins design. Lead Designer, Ian Lewis, adds, “We have a preset mode called "Davids and Goliath." It’s one beachball versus a bunch of tiny ball bearings.” You could totally get a ball bearing to the hole first, with careful placement.

Blockpocalypse

[developer] Dime Studios

[release] Late 2016

[price] $15-20

[website] blockpocalypse.com

I love apocalyptic content, from the bleakness of The Walking Dead to arthouse movies like Melancholia, where the question is posed, “How might someone who is severely depressed understand the ending of the world?” One thing I hadn’t previously imagined, however, was how fun planetary annihilation might be. When your perfectly lovely city is suddenly and outrageously exploded by an inexplicable red ball, hilariously leap on stuff. Upwards.

I played Blockpocalypse at PAX with three other players. No-one is safe, not the Buddhist monk, the woman in the red dress or the left shark. I was the skeleton. I mean, the fact I was still fighting for “life” shows commitment, right? You’d think those guys would have waited for me. I mean, some of them had to. It’s a strange mix of co-operative play and, “Get out of my way,” that is required to throw televisions and pipes into an ascendant structure.

And, a surprising amount of play doesn’t actually rely on survival at all. Yes, you must hide when it starts raining fire, and the main aim is to outrun rising lava, but you can also just chill out and shoot some hoops or capture and hold the crown. Make no mistake, this is a party game, and these would be standard multiplayer modes in any other. In Blockpocalypse, they are defiance, a middle finger to inevitable death.

Prototyped during a game jam titled, “What do we do next?” Creative Director, Dan Clayton, tells us, “We got really excited about the prospect of a co-op building game that would, at some point, pit players against each other.” The best thing about Blockpocalypse, in its pre-release state, is that I am not sure if there is a happy ending for, specifically, my skeleton and, frankly, that’s very disturbing. (Which makes for a suitable apocalyptic content, in my book.)

Armed with Wings: Rearmed

[developer] Sun-Studios

[release] In Early Access

[price] $8

[website] www.armedwithwings.com

There’s something quite evocative about a setting that’s only black and white. As a result of early technology, the first sidescrolling spaceship I ever commanded was a tiny, bright triangle against the nothingness of space. Games don’t have the same historical timeframe as film, however, and aesthetic conventions never became tied to technology in the same way. My first impression of Armed with Wings: Rearmed was that it would probably be bleak and Limbo-esque.

Interestingly, the combination of frosty mountains in the background and gorgeous animations creates a dramatic feel to combat without any negative connotation. My character is whirly and graceful, but so powerful. It is a joy to play because timing and skill is learned alongside a visual feast of movement, enhanced by the strong silhouettes. Combat begins simply but soon relies on reflexes, observation and use of surrounding terrain features.

What begins as, seemingly, an action platformer quickly becomes increasingly puzzle focused. Yes, you can engage enemies directly, but a smarter way might be to smash boulders and launch the resulting rocks with your katana, like an expert ice hockey player, from a safe distance. I absolutely love how the level design challenged me. Initially thinking, “Surely this is a bug. This is impossible,” always gives way to, “Oh, I see. That’s really clever.”

Puzzling also uses a little bird who you can send a limited distance from you. I would tell you the kinds of things it can do, but that would spoil the way experimentation leads to understanding of the puzzle elements. Designer, Daniel Sun, tells us, “Armed with Wings: Rearmed is designed to make players feel like an epic samurai warrior, despite skill level.” Certainly, if I was expecting sadness, I left feeling uplifted by the cleverness of the design and the beauty of the world.

Post Bug

[developer] Hemingway Games

[release] Available now

[price] Free

[website] postbug.hemingwaygames.com

Here’s your love letter from an old friend. Sorry you drowned before you had a chance to read it. Initially, I decided to include Postbug in the PAX feature just because it is free and fully released. I figured readers could play along at home. Now, I suspect it might actually be the most compelling game in the whole collection. Why? In a world that will drown, crush or eat you at any moment, correspondence seems exceptionally precious.

And who makes sure your message gets through the perilous and dynamic rigors of nature in this Boulder Dash style open world of browser based mayhem? Me. The ladybug with the mail satchel. I will swim past jellyfish, command a bee army and dance around spiderwebs to do it. If I have push you into the claws of a crab so I can escape while it snaps you in half, well this is just the nature of things. Perhaps the next letter will actually be opened. By golly, I will deliver it.

Concurrently, here is a letter from designer, George Hemingway, to you, and it reads, “Postbug has been designed to encourage exploration, experimentation, and strategy building during gameplay. Players will need to experiment with their environment to understand how objects behave and I hope a sense of curiosity drives the player to explore the open layout.” Watch out for that spider!

Quarries of Scred 2

[developer] Kale

[release] Available now

[price] $4

[website] darkestkale.itch.io/quarries-of-scred-2

Prior to Postbug, at PAX last year, Quarries of Scred retrospectively introduced me to this specific and compelling blend of arcadey exploration, collection and being crushed horribly from above. Recalling how well balanced the experience was, I was interested to see a new game for the series, recently released and now multiplayer. Developer, Kale, tells us that this is directly in response to 2014’s feedback and people asking for it.

So, does the experience hold up with friends? With meaningfully different game modes, it’s both usefully familiar and new enough to maintain interest. For starters, you can aim to be the last drone standing, or play in teams. Then, vary up how much loot is dropped, how many lives you have and terrain features, including how far you can see. Or, you can attempt the hilarious mycological melee, surviving while painting the level with either mushrooms or moss.

The four player slots can be filled with human players or challenging AIs. I quite like assigning four bots and just watching the game play itself, as well as the lighthearted humour, like being, “hugged to death.” Kale tells us he spent time considering, “How do I use the same space and physics to do different things?” The result is more Quarries of Scred, reorganised in a bunch of ways and, as Kale says, “the energy that comes with friendly competition.”

Goat Punks

[developer] Alberto Santiago

[release] Early 2016

[price] TBA

[website] goatpunks.com

Are goats playful creatures? They always struck me as such, but maybe it’s just because they bounce to get around. One way or another, the goats in Goat Punks have gone silly. This is a four player race to the top of one of many themed spires. What do you do when you get there? Try to stay there for a count of 30, exploding approaching goats with fireballs, when necessary. What happens if you are knocked off? The time you’ve won starts unwinding.

Along your way to the top of unlikely cities or a mountain of candy, there are a range of powerups to collect. Don't forget to push another goat off a precipice or activate your bubble shield if you need it. The action is fast paced and relies on both reflexes and skill. Designer, Alberto Santiago says, “When people play GoatPunks I hope to have them experience the same excitement I got when I was child playing games like Smash Bros and Bomberman.”  

I played this at home with my kids and it was a game they could both play instantly and improve at. At one point my five year old shouted, “I’m a goat,” demonstrating that this game really does capture that goaty mood. On what inspired the game, Santiago says, “Random youtube videos about goats, Japanese game shows and Anime.” Goat Punks is fun. Watch for it on Steam and head to YouTube in the meantime. Goats are amazing.

Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire

[developer] Whalehammer Games

[release] TBA

[price] $15

[website] www.tahiragame.com

I grew up devouring science fiction and probably my most beloved settings involved civilisations which had once been advanced and spacefaring, but were then plunged back into dark ages. You never quite knew the reason for the calamity, but incomprehensible technological artifacts were the perfect justification for magic. I could read Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire’s title alone for several hours, I reckon. It’s like flash fiction.

Creative Director, Peter Castle, explains some of his narrative influences, “I was trekking in the Himalayas, sketching a few ideas onto a notepad in the evenings. One of them was a picture of a princess standing at the top of a sand dune, she was looking down at a burning city that was being attacked by a huge army. It was her kingdom. The image stayed with me and I began to ask myself how that situation could have arisen.”

In the demo, this question was merely posed, not answered. But, I gleefully battled Astral Soldiers, wondering at their incongruous name in this seemingly ancient place. Battled, yes, for the compelling narrative is only a mere backdrop to an incredible, turn-based strategy game. It is deep, without ever being confusing. Picture a Banner Saga where combat is explained perfectly, but without solving any aspect of the scenario for you.

For example, in one battle, I was overwhelmed. My options were to allow opponents to be distracted by killing civilians while I employed hefty flanking bonuses against outer groups. Or, I could try to reach civilians, tell them to flee and recruit the uninjured. Either way, positioning was paramount. Enemies get a free hit in their Zone of Denial. And, you must carefully manage statistics like Guard, which soak some damage and allow you to strike efficiently.

One thing is clear. Tahira, who is a military unit herself, must be protected. She is also formidable. What does her “magic” staff do? Currently, it zaps people in a column of blue light. It is both a useful area of effect weapon, on a grid which currently sees mostly basic melee and ranged attacks, by design, and a reason to wonder precisely what it is and why she has it. I strongly suspect this is a game I would play to the very end.

Objects in Space

[developer] Flat Earth Games

[release] Mid 2016

[price] TBA

[website] objectsgame.com

The only game I wasn’t able to play at home, after PAX, was Objects in Space. It is both the quintessential, “game for a convention,” and, ironically, something you need to sink hours into in a solitary space. Why? Well. For starters, to fire a missile, I literally had to flip back a safety switch and push my finger down on an ominous red button. If you were waiting for an invitation to build your own spaceship, this is it.

Lead designer, Leigh Harris says, "Objects uses a virtual serial port to interface directly with arduinos, LEDs, buttons, switches and dials. We'll release the source code for everything we build and do how-to guides online.” Can you also play it with a mouse and keyboard? Sure. Will you still want to? Absolutely. Harris describes the game as, “Marrying the tense stealth action of submarine sims with the open-world exploration of space trading games.”

During a 15 minute demonstration, I barely scratched the surface of the game’s systems.

As well as powering down for stealth, hiding in nebulae and physically touching the many things required to blow up a pirate, I learned that engagement is limited only by your curiosity. Pay for repairs or figure out how to do it yourself. Further, if you lose the ability to control a system due to damage, look to the command line interface in the corner.

You can even get detailed, political leaning news from the different sectors you pass by and it is this depth, beyond hardware customisation, that promises flexible, meaningful play. PAX-goers may have been drawn to Objects in Space because of its peripherals, but were then treated to a deep simulation experience. In a convention full of fun, but often fleeting moments, Objects sparked enduring eagerness in everyone who played it.

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