The Ars 13: Our top indie game picks from PAX East 2020 – Ars Technica

Go your own way —

VR swordfights, historical dramas, shark simulations, and everything in between.

Kyle Orland and Sarah LeBoeuf

  • Party like it’s 1795 in Ambition: A Minuet in Power

  • The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk is a send up of RPG tropes and a deep tactical RPG at the same time.

  • Fall Guys is a battle royale competition seen through a party game lens.

  • Help will Come Tomorrow is not the cheeriest game on this list by a long shot…

  • Ironlights is VR swordfighting actually works thanks to some clever game mechanics.

  • Unleash your inner shark in Maneater

  • In Maquette the miniatures are more than just a model of the larger world.

  • Metamorphosis is the video game adaptation of a 100-year-old novel you never knew you needed.

  • This screenshot does not do Paper Beast justice. You need to see it in motion from inside a VR headset.

  • In The Red Lantern, random chance affects the story as much as the gameplay.

  • The surreal visuals of She Dreams Elsewhere enhance the magical realism of the game’s narrative.

  • Shovel Knight pocket Dungeon is easy to pick up but hard to put down, as the best puzzle action games are.

  • Welcome to Elk tells sometimes harrowing non-fiction stories with playful, cartoonish imagery.

I’ve been writing about games long enough to remember when the concept of an “indie game” was new and odd. It seems like just yesterday that getting a game to market without the help of a major publisher or console maker was so rare as to border on impossible. Today, though, increased access to digital distribution, easy-to-learn game development tools, and cheap game development hardware has produced thousands upon thousands of independent game developers, all fighting for a small portion of gamers’ limited attention spans.

Nowhere is that battle more apparent than at PAX East, where the crowded Boston Convention Center floor is packed to the gills with hundreds of indie game booths that range from single-person development teams to mini-conglomerate indie publishers like Devolver Digital, Tiny Build, and Annapurna Interactive.

Playing every indie game at a modern PAX East would take multiple weeks; a four-day show just doesn’t offer enough time to take it all in. But we did our best, sampling from a wide variety of the most interesting indie prospects. Here, in alphabetical order, are 13 indie games that stood out from the PAX East crowd.

Ambition: A Minuet in Power

Developer: Joy Manufacturing Co.


Platforms: Windows, Mac


Expected release date: TBD


More info: Official web site

Visual novels are like video game comfort food. They’re a great way to unwind and unplug, and they let you focus on narrative and dialogue as opposed to more complicated mechanics. Ambition: A Minuet in Power allowed me to escape the noisy, crowded PAX East show floor and enter a world of intrigue, scandal, fashion, and romance set against the French revolution.

Developer Joy Manufacturing Co. describes Ambition as a “rogue-lite” visual novel, meaning that it shares some of the features of roguelikes without complicated trial-and-error mechanics or combat. As a young woman who finds herself alone in Paris, you must navigate a world where gossip is currency, your outfits say everything about you, and every social event could have devastating consequences.

It’s a lovely escape with beautiful artwork, and because your choices determine where the story goes, it’s a little different every time you play it. I’ll happily go back to Paris when it launches on PC later this year.


-Sarah LeBoeuf

The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk

Developer: Artefacts Studio


Platform: Windows


Expected release date: 2020


More info: Official web page

Let’s face it: role-playing games are built on tropes. The mechanics change, the graphics get better, but traditional RPGs typically still feature a group of mages, warriors, and archers fighting evil in a fantasy setting. Dungeons of Naheulbeuk relentlessly mocks these RPG tropes through humorous dialogue and a line-up of clumsy heroes better suited for getting drunk at the local pub than saving the day.

As a longtime fan of RPGs, I couldn’t help but laugh at the way The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk pokes fun at the genre. But Naheulbeuk is more than just a vessel for comedy; there’s a beautifully crafted, surprisingly deep game underneath the humor. The tactics-based combat system requires players to be aware of not just individual attacks but of the environment and positioning of each character as well. Actress Felicia Day, who voices a “snarky” red-haired wizard, praised the game’s “really sharp, really funny” writing. Based on what I’ve seen, I’d have to agree.


-Sarah LeBoeuf

Fall Guys

Developer: Mediatonic


Platforms: PS4, Windows


Expected release date: Summer 2020


More info: Devolver Digital

Battle royale games are all the rage these days, but not everyone digs high-pressure shooters like Fortnite and Apex Legends. So the brilliant minds at Mediatonic had an idea: what if we did battle royale, but as a party game?

The result is Fall Guys, a blindingly bright, absurdly silly 100-player match-up of mini-games and pure chaos. Think Mario Party meets Ellen’s Game of Games. Every round consists of a shorter game lasting just a few minutes, after which about a third of players are eliminated. These rounds might have games like collecting eggs, trying to pull tails off of other players, or obstacle-filled races; they all have simple mechanics that make it easy to join in.

Fall Guys is sheer fun. It was up on the big screen at Devolver’s booth, so those in line could cheer on players. During my own session, where I made it to the final round before losing the crown, I found myself fist-pumping, shouting, and ultimately wanting more. It’s due out for PC and PS4 later this year, though it feels like there’s a missed opportunity for a perfect-fit Nintendo Switch release. Regardless of platform, it’s a great way to bring players together for an experience that’s unapologetically silly and a ton of fun.


-Sarah LeBoeuf

Help Will Come Tomorrow

Developer: Arclight Creations


Platform: Windows, Xbox One, PS4, Switch


Expected release date: April 21, 2020


More info: Steam

Russia, 1917. The Russian Revolution is in full swing, and an attack on the Trans-Siberian Railroad has left a group of its passengers stranded in the snowy wilderness. This is Help Will Come Tomorrow, a Polish indie game that mixes survival elements with interpersonal relationships against a historical backdrop.

In Help Will Come Tomorrow, you’re in charge of managing the survivors’ time in the wilderness while having no idea when help will actually come. That means doling out what meager food is available, assigning work duties, building shelter and tools, and making sure everyone is relatively healthy, which isn’t easy when you’re surviving on beans, moss, and questionable mushrooms.

During all of this, you’ll manage interpersonal relationships, keeping in mind that certain groups, like aristocrats, don’t get along with others (they’re also not fond of hard work, another aspect to keep in mind). I wish I’d had more time with this game, and I’ll get a chance soon: publisher Klabatar is planning for a late April release, and there’s currently a live Kickstarter campaign to get it through the home stretch.


-Sarah LeBoeuf

Ironlights

Developer: E McNeill


Platforms: Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, SteamVR


Expected release: Spring 2020


More info: Kickstarter

For all the imagined coolness of lightsaber duels in VR, the concept is pretty hard to get right in practice. For starters, the lack of physical obstructions means your cutting motion will slice right through the opponent’s virtual guard like it’s slicing through air… because, in reality, it is.

Ironlights solves this problem with a few interesting design choices that make its two-player sword duels actually work. For one, the game uses a recharging energy system to ensure that only one player can be on “offense” at a time, while the other uses their own weapon just to block. For another, the energy-based weapons in the attacker’s hand disintegrate into particles when blocked, requiring the attacker to grab behind their back for a new blade. And all the action is slowed down significantly from your real time movements, giving the defending player the opportunity to react while limiting the power of an attacker who is simply flailing about as quickly as possible.

The result is the best translation into virtual reality of the basic two-player risk/reward fighting game structure that I’ve yet seen. The nearly complete demo I played on a wireless Oculus Quest showed off a variety of different weapon types, from a spinnable bo staff to a swinging mace and chain, all with their various pros and cons. We can’t wait to see the techniques and metagaming that develops when online VR competitors finally get their hands on this one in wide release.


-Kyle Orland

Maneater

Developer: Blindside Interactive


Platform: Windows, PS4


Expected release date: TBD


More info: Steam

If you took Discovery’s Shark Week and turned it into a completely over-the-top video game, you couldn’t do much better than Maneater. This open world shark simulation leans hard into its reality TV premise, complete with larger-than-life good ol’ boy shark hunter antagonists and a nature documentary narrator that explains basic aquatic life facts as you rip and tear through the water.

The game’s core appeal is the sheer catharsis of sharky carnage, whether it’s shaking a wriggling fish between your mighty jaws or leaping out of the water and flailing about to destroy a ship full of shark hunters. But much like the ocean, Maneater has hidden depths that can only be unlocked as you complete open-water quests and level up with new abilities needed to take on threats both in and out of the water.

It’s hard to tell from a limited PAX demo whether the game’s core loops and expansion system will sustain it for multiple hours. But the sheer joy of controlling of one of nature’s most remorseless killers is strong enough here to pique our interest.


-Kyle Orland

Maquette

Developer: Graceful Decay


Platform: Windows


Expected release date: TBD


More info: Steam

There’s a moment early on in the Maquette demo where you pick up an innocent-looking small red cube and see and hear a much larger, identical red cube rise into the air in the distance, mimicking the smaller cube’s movements in your hands. The concept instantly clicks — anything you manipulate in the small maquette model in the center of your world also has a super-sized effect on the wider, ornate domed environment around you.

Using this newfound power, you unlock new portions of a literal memory palace that slowly fills in with sketchbook remembrances of a past romantic relationship, haunted by the specter of its own inevitable decay. Well-written dialogue snippets in the demo mix with well-timed musical drops to produce some real emotion from a simple “boy meets girl” tale.

While the positional platforming puzzles start off rather simple, you’re quickly required to master new ideas of how size and perspective interact in the echoing world-within-a-world. The short PAX East demo only hints at an even wider world outside the initial domed enclosure, where your larger environment acts as its own recursive maquette for an even greater adventure. After spending a bit of time in this elegantly constructed puzzle box of a world, we can’t wait to see where it goes.


-Kyle Orland

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