It’s that time of year again, folks! (No, not the holidays… much as I love me some Andy Williams.)
PAX East 2023 is upon us, and I’m on the show floor looking for diamonds and opals. This year has all but abandoned the idea of the “AAA” hitter. You won’t find Microsoft or Sony, and while Nintendo’s at the show, they’ve elected to show attendees how to play the Pokémon trading card game rather than divulge Tears of the Kingdom details. (Let’s be honest—they were never bringing a demo to Boston.)
So, in the spirit of indie gaming, here are five stand-outs from day one of the show:
What it is: Paper Mario meets WWE
Who’s making it: Tic Toc Games
Why it’s great: Wrestle Story was my first game of the day, and it made an instant impression. Inspired by the likes of Paper Mario and Earthbound, Wrestle Story aims to take what made those RPGs great (snappy combat, skill trees, etc.) and wrap it in a wrestling-flavored bow.
Like those RPG greats, Wrestle Story won’t overstay its welcome. According to the developers, the final game will clock in at around 20 hours. Music to my ears.
When it’s coming out: “When it’s ready”
What it is: Shin Megami Tensei for the modern era
Who’s making it: Necrosoft Games (developer) and Ysbryd Games (publisher)
Why it’s great: Demonschool’s been on my radar since it was announced in 2022. As someone who loves Persona but never really got into Shin Megami Tensei, I found myself intrigued at the prospect of an indie dev breathing new life into old-school RPG concepts.
Grotesque demons. Doom and gloom characters. Blood-stained hallways. Yup, this is SMT all right.
While those factors are appealing, what sets Demonschool apart is its tactical, position-based combat. Plan every character’s move to the detail, then click confirm to see it all play out in gleefully macabre fashion. It’s gorey, it’s excessive… and it’s a whole lot of fun.
When it’s coming out: 2023
What it is: A charming melding of puzzles and narrative adventure
Who’s making it: Rogue Sun (developer) and Wired Productions (publisher)
Why it’s great: This one caught me completely by surprise. A little bit Lemmings, a little bit What Remains of Edith Finch, Tin Hearts is a puzzle-adventure with great heart. Across a series of bite-sized levels, I guided a small army of tin soldiers from one end of a room to another, using blocks, drums, cannons, and other play toys.
I didn’t see enough of the narrative to see if it’ll hook me, but the developer promises there’s some emotional heft behind the whimsical curtain. Based on the quality of what I played, I’m inclined to believe them.
When it’s coming out: April 20, 2023
Pixel Pulps: Varney Lake
What it is: A sharply written, meticulously drawn piece of pulp
Who’s making it: LCB Game Studio (developer), Chorus Worldwide Games (publisher)
Why it’s great: Varney Lake called to me with its gorgeous pixel art style. Then I picked up the controller, and I was mesmerized all over.
The second entry in a trio of interactive pulp adventures, Varney Lake centers around three kids living in a town filled with oddities and mysteries. When a vampire appears and one kid goes missing, paranormal investigator Lou Hill has to put the pieces together.
My time with Varney Lake was brief, but its sharp prose and vivid, Stranger Things-esque imagery pulled me right in. The first game in the series, Mothmen 1966, is available now (complete with a playable demo). Give it a whirl.
When it’s coming out: April 28, 2023
What it is: Mega Man, except he’s ditched the buster for some brass knuckles
Who’s making it: Domesticated Ant Games (developer) and PID Games (publisher)
Why it’s great: Gravity Circuit was a late add to my day-one schedule. Suffice it to say, I’m glad I stumbled upon it.
This Mega Man-inspired 2D platformer lets you slide, sprint, wall jump, and grapple your way from point A to point B. A Shovel Knight-esque checkpoint system forces you to pick and choose when to save your progress, while a chip-based upgrade system lets you customize your play style to your liking.
Gravity Circuit may not seem to innovate all that much, but when the action and controls are so smooth, I find it hard to complain. Blue Bomber fans: Keep this one on your radar.
When it’s coming out: Q2 2023
And that’s that! Like the format of this piece? Let me know in the comments below.