PAX South was this weekend, and it’s a refreshing event to go to because it focuses so heavily on the smaller games from smaller teams. While I was there I saw several games, but a handful of them stuck with me the most. Here’s eleven games that left the biggest impression on me at PAX South 2020:
Bill Hates Video Games
I really appreciate how Bill Hates Video Games acknowledges just how dumb video games can be. The top-down Zelda-style focuses on a man named Bill who somehow gets sucked into a magical video game world where he can only progress and find his way home by being the protagonist.
Most of the time I spent as Bill’s was doing the same things I always do in video games, but while one character flew around me telling me what to do, the one I occupied pointed out just how dumb it all was. Why do my enemies have giant weak points for me to strike? If an entire room is going to be a puzzle, why make it so obvious by labeling the door with a switch that has the same icon on it? And also, why is there always a magical sword that, when placed in the hand of the chosen and most powerful person in the universe, is the key to saving everyone? Whether all the snarky (albeit occasionally crude) humor will result in something truly subversive or just poking fun for several hours remains to be seen, but at least right now I find it pretty amusing and want to see where it goes.
Kitfox Games’ Boyfriend Dungeon is a flat circle in a venn diagram of my interests. One part dating sim visual novel, another part dungeon crawler, these two seemingly disparate elements are brought together by making every person you can conceivably date a weapon for you to fight with. At PAX South I saw what appeared to be the early moments of dating the Talwar named Sunder. Even in just the small amount of his route I was able to see, it was already dripping with the drama I crave out of a dating sim while also using its absurd premise to make the Diablo-style dungeon crawling feel like more than a distraction from the juicy bits.
Will Sunder become my go-to weapon? We’ll see. Sometimes you gotta play around a little and find out what playstyle you gel with the most. What good does it do you to just go with the first weapon you try without seeing what playstyles are out there for you to experience?
Boyfriend Dungeon is coming to PC and Switch in 2020.
Big Blue Bubble’s Forgone mixes in elements of the loot-driven Diablo into a genre I find a bit more enticing. The action platformer adds loot drops to the formula, meaning that it felt like less of a mastery of a specific skill set and more of a test in ability to adapt on the fly to what you have at your disposal. But the folks at Big Blue Bubble tell me that the full game will be more geared toward specialization and developing your own playstyle, along with upgrades and abilities meant to make the experience more crafted.
But honestly, I’m kind of digging the idea of both approaches. The action-driven combat makes different weapon drops meaningful as everything changes depending on whether you’ve picked up a bow or a pistol. And we’ll all get a chance to try it out fairly soon, as Forgone is going into Early Access on the Epic Games Store on February 27.
Picogram had one of the most charming and wholesome games on the PAX South showfloor with Garden Story, an RPG and social sim focused on a grape named Concord, who must defend their home from The Rot, which is exactly what it sounds like. This corruptive force is damaging Concord’s home, and it’s up to them to find a way to stop it.
But the part of Garden Story that interested me most was the social aspects, which seem reminiscent of something like Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley. Along with the RPG mechanics, Garden Story is about the community Concord belongs to, and several of its citizens need help with various errands and issues, whether it’s dealing with The Rot, or something a little more mundane like helping them handle their day-to-day. Add gardening mechanics to all of this, and Garden Story sounds packed with something for the farm sim and RPG faithful. It’s coming to PC and Mac in the spring.
Within seconds of finding the titular Kunai in Kunai, it became apparent just how natural it made movement feel. The Metroidvania (but not Metroidvania because we don’t use that term here) has a distinct, retro visual style, an entertaining take on the hypothetical AI uprising, but above all its use of physics and fluid, rapid traversal that makes it an incredibly satisfying game to explore. Even in just the 15 minutes I was able to play, I was spending my time using the kunai to scale walls, swing from them, and reach areas I had no reason to just beyond seeing if I could. It’s a simple mechanic, but it’s easily understood when seen, and inspires a sense of exploratory play beyond merely progressing through its world that I can’t wait to try out some more.
Given that the nature of the “not Metroidvania but some other less obtuse word” genre, I’m interested to see what other means Kunai gives me as the game progresses to make my way through its desecrated, but still quirky world. And thankfully, the wait won’t be that long, as Kunai is coming to PC and Switch on February 6.
The Last Friend
Good lord, nothing at PAX South captured my fascination faster than The Stonebot’s The Last Friend.
This tower defense and beat-em-up mashup taps into genres that haven’t typically held my attention, but its setting elevates it to something more exciting than I would have thought either style of game could attain. This marriage of genres takes place in a post-apocalyptic universe where your goal is to save none other than a kennel’s worth of dogs. Once saved, these dogs bring new abilities and strategies with them, and you can, of course, name and pet all of them. Well, almost all of them, because the chihuahua was not having it.
As silly as its premise might sound, it’s a sign that with the right twist, any style of game can pull you in, even if you’ve previously written it off. Based on what I played, there’s also a fair amount of depth and strategy with systems I’m ready to try and master once the game comes out later this year.
Mythic Ocean is different than a lot of games on this list in that I made a conscious decision to stop playing after a certain point, not because I wasn’t enjoying myself, but because I was finding myself ready to see it through to the end, and didn’t want to deal with the frustration of having the demo cut me off.
The mysteries of Mythic Ocean were pulling me in just in the small section I got a chance to play of the underwater exploration sim, and I’m curious to see where these hanging threads lead. On top of an enticing story, there are choices to be made that can shift the tide, so it’s ticking off several boxes for me as a fan of choice-based games with a heavy emphasis on its cast.
They say we’ve only discovered roughly five percent of the ocean, but maybe Mythic Ocean is a decent place for me to start without all the danger involved.
Mythic Ocean is available now on Steam and Itch.io.
Playing a game about being a bartender when you don’t actually drink and know very little about alcohol is a jarring experience, as I learned in playing N1RV Ann-A, the sequel to VA-11 Hall-A. I never played the first game, but knew it by reputation, and this visual novel/drink maker sim is less about the drinking and more about what a patron is willing to unload onto the bartender when they’re given the right drink.
I may have known nothing about VA-11 Hall-A, but I didn’t need to in order to get to know Olivia, a customer who sat down at my bar. She asked for a beer, and once I gave her one she told me about her toxic workplace and the awful things she and her co-workers had experienced in the name of someone else trying to get ahead. I was able to give her some advice, send her home after a drink that I think (again, I don’t drink and being thrust into the role of a bartender is a whole different kind of stressful when you know nothing about it) she liked, and all I can do now is hope it helped her in some way.
I might not see Olivia again, but I think I’m down to meet others like her in N1RV Ann-A when it comes to PC, PlayStation 4, and Switch later this year.
I spent most of my time with Petal Crash unlearning habits I’d formed with other puzzle games over the years and found one of the more challenging and rewarding experiences on the PAX South showfloor with it. I specifically got to play some of its competitive mode, which pits two people against each other as they attempt to clear their own board and sending garbage blocks to their opponent. But unlike other games of the style, it’s not about aligning blocks of the same color, it’s about pushing them into one another, which creates a chain reaction, pushing blocks away and disrupting your opponent’s game.
I kept finding myself defaulting to things like Pokemon Puzzle Challenge and other games that require you to just line things up, but it was a habit I had to break if I wanted to win. Every few events I go to I find that perfect local party game that I’m eager to finally have to play with groups, and Petal Crash took that spot at PAX South.
Petal Crash is coming to PC and Android devices in May.
Every now and then you play a game that frustrates you early on because you realize how high the skill ceiling is. Windjammers 2 was that game for me at PAX South. There’s a finesse and muscle memory associated with Windjammers that rivals that of a fighting game, and it can be so unrelenting if you’re playing against people who are demonstrably better at it than you. I don’t know if I’d have the patience to become a master at Windjammers 2, but it’s hard to play a game that fine-tuned and frenetic and not walk away impressed.
Windjammers 2 is coming to PC, Switch, and Stadia (as ill-advised as that might seem at this point) later this year, and I don’t know if my hand-eye-coordination is up to snuff to play it myself, but I will be more than willing to devour every high level competitive video of it being played.
I’m a sucker for a good sibling story, and Young Souls delivers that. I’m also a sucker for “normal teenager by day but something else by night” stories, and Young Souls also delivers that.
The Arcade Crew’s beat-em-up and RPG hybrid is a gorgeous and stylish tale of two siblings: Jenn and Tristan. After losing their family in a house fire, the two are taken in by a scientist, whose work reveals to them another world where goblins exist and are intent on wreaking havoc on humanity. Fighting back means suiting up and creating unique fighting styles for both siblings, which gives the beat-em-up styling a bit more depth and personalization that speaks to me.
Ultimately, just about everything about Young Souls is speaking to me at this point. Its gorgeous art style is a joy to look at, its fast-paced combat feels more personal thanks to its customization, and I’m already feeling a bit invested in seeing where these angsty siblings are going.