We’ve arrived at the finish line, folks. Day four of PAX East 2023 has come to a close, and I have five more gems to recommend.
This Sunday was dedicated to the indies that make a show like PAX shine. Without the talented work of smaller dev teams, there wouldn’t be nearly the same charm or creativity at shows like these.
I played a lot of phenomenal titles, but these were the five standouts:
What it is: A sharper, more focused take on Octopath Traveler
Who’s making it: drass_ray & Mottzy (developers) and GRAVITY GAME ARISE Co., Ltd. (publisher)
Why it’s great: I had no idea Alterium Shift existed until PAX East Sunday, when I stumbled upon its modest two-PC booth near the front of the venue. My eyes were drawn to a banner describing the game as “a retro JRPG-inspired indie.” Sold.
I spoke with the two-man development team, who described a few of the inspirations for the game. Octopath Traveler. Chrono Trigger. Final Fantasy VI. Sold again. I sat down to play, and only then did I realize the ambition on display with this small but mighty title.
Alterium Shift pays homage to the above JRPG greats, while simultaneously building on that reverence. The game begins by letting you select between three heroes: Pyra, Atlas, and Sage. Each has their own drives and ambitions—Pyra’s the natural-born leader, Atlas is the spunky youngster, and Sage is the sly tongue of the bunch. While all three are friends, their stories are distinct and will diverge from and intersect with one another as such.
I quickly selected Pyra, intrigued by her sense of justice and duty. Over 20 minutes, I trained with my teacher, interacted with townsfolk, and scoured the map for items. Battles were crisp, with short animations and satisfying attack options. Even better was the game’s writing; everything, from NPCs to cabinets, has unique dialogue or description lines. There are so many branches to dialogue trees that I worry the developers are burning the midnight oil to brainstorm new material.
Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. With the promise of 15 to 20 hours of gameplay per character (and a “persistent save state” that will encourage multiple play-throughs), Alterium Shift could be the RPG you never knew you needed. There’s a demo available now on Steam—give it a try for yourself.
When it’s coming out: TBD (targeting early access in mid-2023)
What it is: A Metroidvania with the combat of Smash Bros. and flair of Skies of Arcadia
Who’s making it: Hello Penguin Team LLC (developer) and PID Games (publisher)
Why it’s great: Vernal Edge drew me in with its gorgeous pixel art and animations. While I came in expecting a standard Metroidvania, I quickly realized Vernal Edge has an identity all its own.
Two elements set the game apart from the crowd. The first is its combat, which feels less like Castlevania and more like Super Smash Bros. You can perform directional attacks, juggle enemies in the air, and even charge up powerful attacks to break enemies’ guard.
The second and more critical deviation is Vernal Edge’s approach to exploration. In what I imagine is a first for the genre, the game allows players to hop freely between areas via a PS1-era world map, complete with an airship. You can tackle sections of the game in any order you choose, regardless of their difficulty level.
I haven’t heard a peep about this game—and it came out last week. If the 30-second pitch intrigues you, give it a shot.
When it’s coming out: Out now!
Rough Justice ’84
What it is: A neo-noir adventure with skill checks, micro-games, and mind-melting twists
Who’s making it: Gamma Minus UG (developer) and Daedalic Entertainment (publisher)
Why it’s great: I like my eggs just as I like my crime stories: hardboiled. Rough Justice ’84 provides those noir vibes in spades, melding narrative and tabletop-RPG elements in a fashion reminiscent of 2022’s Citizen Sleeper.
The premise is simple: You’re in charge of a newly minted security agency. To leave your mark, you’ll need to take on cases, each with its own criteria for success. By hiring freelance talent (like “Sunshine,” with her high empathy skills), you’ll send people across the city to complete gigs, build trust, and earn money for the firm.
Easier said than done. Rough Justice ’84 adds strategy to the mix by requiring DnD-esque skill checks at critical junctures. You’ll need to level up your freelancers to grow their skills and build credibility in Seneca City. The game also provides more tactical moments via its interactive puzzles. From redacting documents to performing x-raying luggage, there’s plenty of variety between story beats.
Speaking of story, the most intriguing part of Rough Justice has to be its narrative. The developers are promising some killer twists by the time all is said and done. Given the game’s already out in the wild, we won’t have to wait long to see if those words hold true.
When it’s coming out: Out now!
Mineko’s Night Market
What it is: A narrative-focused take on Animal Crossing, with tons of humor and charm
Who’s making it: Meowza Games (developer) and Humble Games (publisher)
Why it’s great: Mineko’s Night Market takes the visuals of Knights and Bikes, the intimacy of A Night in the Woods, and the charm of Animal Crossing and combines them into a captivating cocktail.
The demo at PAX East tasked me with gathering flowers for a bouquet of flowers, then liberating a series of cats from mysterious agents in a nearby wood. While I didn’t get a clear sense of how all the systems intertwine—from crafting items to selling them—what I played was nevertheless entertaining.
A special shout-out to the writing in Mineko’s Night Market, which had me practically wheezing as I set the controller down.
When it’s coming out: 2023
What it is: A vibrant puzzle game all about being a good plant parent
Who’s making it: Balloon Studios (developer) and Whitethorn Games (publisher)
Why it’s great: Botany Manor is stunning. Its lush foliage reminds me of The Witness, and its puzzles provide something new for fans of the genre. With a focus on discovering mysterious fauna and recreating the environment needed to help them bloom, Botany Manor seems like a soothing experience that’ll cater to anyone’s green thumb.
When it’s coming out: 2023
That’s a wrap! 25 video games later, I hope you’ve found a new recommendation to try or wishlist.
For more on PAX East 2023, check out my coverage of day one, day two, and day three.
Thanks for the write-ups! So many good games this year. I tracked down some of your indie recommendations on the last day (Bulwark, Varney Lake) and will keep an eye on the ones I didn’t get to play
My pleasure, Tom! Thanks so much for reading, and hope you had a great time at the show!
Yeah, I kept busy every day! A few other standouts for me were Animal Well, Wild Woods and Dome Keeper
Thanks for the recs! I’ll have to check those out.