The Very Best from Boston’s Popular Expo
March 10-12 marked the return of Boston’s annual Penny Arcade Expo. Despite temperatures that were in the teens, a multitude of fantastic games were on display that more than made up for the frigid weather.
Due to the nature of 2017 as a year and the absurd amount of high-profile AAA games that were released in Q1, PAX East was decidedly quieter than in past years. Recent releases such as Halo Wars 2 and Nier: Automata were commonplace on the show floor while the Nintendo Switch saw a large presence at Nintendo’s booth, despite releasing over a week before the conference.
Aside from playable multiplayer demos for Quake: Champions and Mass Effect: Andromeda, there weren’t many big-name games to speak of at the convention. Meanwhile, tech companies such as Dell, Astro, and Corsair littered the expo hall, drowning the public in materialistic giveaways and Call of Duty tournaments. Thankfully, this all ended up being a blessing in disguise, as it gave opportunity for many smaller independent games and developers to steal the show.
From 16-bit role-playing games to Metroidvania-inspired action-platformers, here are the top ten games that I had the pleasure of playing at PAX East 2017:
10 – Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom
I start off my list with a pleasant surprise. While walking the show floor in search of something new to try, I came across Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom. Planned for release on all major platforms, including the Nintendo Switch, I decided to give the game a try, despite its somewhat simplistic visual style. Color me surprised when I came to find the game not only fun to play, but surprisingly endearing and charming. From its whimsical, Dragon Quest-like orchestral score, to hilarious characters like a drunk uncle sipping wine while balancing on a rolling barrel, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom kept me smiling throughout the tropical level that I demoed. As I fired off fire spells and dodged a final boss’ large tentacles, my play-through came to a close with me eager to play more. It may be a small game coming from a small team, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom packs a lot of heart. Look for it when it launches sometime this year.
9 – Ape Out
The first thing that stood out as I started playing Ape Out was its striking color palette. As an escaped Ape, the player splatters the walls with the bright-red blood of an endless onslaught of soldiers while careening down corridor after corridor in search of a way out. While it took mere seconds to get used to the simple control scheme (left trigger grabs, right trigger throws/smashes), Ape Out proved to be quite difficult as I dodged incoming fire and desperately tried to find the nearest exit. I’m skeptical of whether later levels will be able to add enough depth to avoid feeling stale, but as far as my PAX East experience went, Ape Out was a whole lot of fun. Even better, a playable teaser for the game is available now on Steam to tide players over until the full game’s release this summer.
8 – Absolver
While the majority of the indie games at PAX East had relatively short waits to play, developer Sloclap and publisher Devolver Digital’s Absolver deserves special mention for being as long of a wait as your typical AAA game. After sitting in line for nearly 90 minutes, I had the chance to go hands-on with the hotly-anticipated PvP brawler, and came away impressed. After taking time to learn the controls and basic dodging mechanics, I spent several minutes delving into the game’s nuanced combo creator. By selecting from a group of moves, players are able to design their own combo strings, in order to best fit their fighting style. Having picked a class type that excelled at agility, I naturally designed all four of my character’s ‘stances’ with this trait in mind. When it finally came time to go toe-to-toe with an actual opponent (in the case of PAX East, the guy playing across from me), I felt prepared going into the match-up. My confidence and careful preparation was in turn rewarded with a decisive 3-1 win over my opponent. It remains to be seen whether or not Absolver has the story or lasting gameplay variety to make for an exciting single-player experience, but at the very least, it looks like it may very well have some legs as an intricate and layered multiplayer fighter.
7 – Little Nightmares
At Bandai Namco’s booth, I had the chance to play a promising title by the name of Little Nightmares. The adjective little feels especially fitting when describing Little Nightmares, as the player controls a small hooded girl named Six as she attempts to escape an underwater resort known as The Maw. In this particular demo, Six had to sneak by a hideous-looking chef with a penchant for chopping meat. With platforming and puzzle-solving reminiscent of 2016’s excellent Inside, Little Nightmares left me wanting more as I walked away from the booth, wondering what types of challenges would Six face next. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait long to find an answer, as Little Nightmares releases on April 28.
6 – Katana ZERO
Amidst a sea of computers running Rain World and ToeJam and Earl at Adult Swim Games’ booth, tucked away in a far corner, it was easy to overlook the lone PC station running Askiisoft’s Katana ZERO. Doing so would have been a mistake, as the game was an easy highlight of the games on display. With the adrenaline-fueled one-hit kills of Hotline Miami and the stealth and neo-noir style of Gunpoint, Katana ZERO oozes with style that is complemented by lightning-fast gameplay. Playing through a level in a hotel filled with mobsters, I quickly slice-and-diced my way from room to room, disabling lasers, deflecting oncoming bullets, and rolling behind enemies for easy kills. That said, Katana Zero is far from a walk in the park. The game is as challenging as it is fun, while managing to still feel fair in the process. We’ll see if Katana ZERO can retain this fine balancing act in the final game when it releases in 2017.
5 – Rime
When Rime was initially shown at Gamescom in 2013, the game drew numerous comparisons to classic games such as Ico and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. However, in 2016 the game was dropped by its publisher, Sony, as developer Tequila Works fought to regain the rights to the IP. Needless to say, things weren’t exactly looking good for the ambitious indie title, which made its resurfacing in 2017 through IGN First all the more surprising. Walking up to the game’s booth at PAX this weekend, I was skeptical to say the least. Yet after playing about fifteen minutes of the game and exploring a bit of its mysterious world, I was hooked. The game succeeds in evoking the artistry and musicality that made the aforementioned games such big hits back during the Gamecube and Playstation 2 era, while simultaneously incorporating mechanics that instantly made me think of modern hits like The Witness and The Last Guardian. While the additional $10 price increase for the Nintendo Switch version of the game is ridiculous, to say the least, I am hopeful that the final game will be worth its hefty price tag when Rime launches on May 26.
4 – Cosmic Star Heroine
Originally pitched on Kickstarter in 2013 for release in 2014, Zeboyd Games’ Cosmic Star Heroine has suffered a series of delays and several periods of radio silence on the part of its developers. Thankfully, the end seems to be near for the game’s development, as Cosmic Star Heroine was playable at PAX East, and boy was it good. Harking back to the 16-bit era of JRPGs dominated by Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, Cosmic Star Heroine features a strong, tactical turn-based battle system, as well as crisp, beautiful pixel-art backgrounds and character models. I played through the game’s opening battle sequence, which instantly reminded me of the classic introduction to Final Fantasy VII, complete with an end-of-level boss battle against a giant robot. I found the combat enjoyable, in large part due to the fact that each character’s attacks must be replenished by taking a turn to guard. The result is a battle system that forces the player to think before they act, rather than constantly pressing the same ‘attack’ command over and over again. While the slice of the game I played was small, if Cosmic Star Heroine can remain challenging during its later hours while crafting a strong narrative around its characters, we could be in for a treat. Look for it on April 11.
3 – What Remains of Edith Finch
While the demo I played of Giant Sparrow’s What Remains of Edith Finch was brief, it left a strong impression as I got up from the comfy couch that the developer had so graciously set up for attendees. Set in Washington State, What Remains of Edith Finch tells the story of Edith Finch as she revisits her family home and all of its hidden secrets. Despite having a large family tree, Edith recounts the stories and memories of the various members of the Finch family, as well as the often tragic deaths that befell the people of the estate. While much is still shrouded in mystery surrounding the story of the game, the brief vignette that I played at PAX was riveting, and I’m both anxious and excited to see how the rest of the game’s narrative will unfold when the What Remains of Edith Finch releases on April 25.
2 – Pyre
Since its founding in 2009, Supergiant Games has created some truly novel experiences across two gaming generations. Bastion is still remembered as one of the greatest action-RPGs to hit the Xbox Live Arcade, while Transistor continued to further the developer’s pedigree for smart, tactical gameplay narrated by smooth, sultry storytellers. At PAX East, Supergiant showed more of its third title, Pyre, and it’s pretty safe to say that the budding developer isn’t keen on resting on its laurels. A competitive 3v3 mashup of basketball and Harry Potter’s Quidditch, Pyre tasks players with vying for control of a ball and moving it to the enemy team’s goal, with the ultimate objective being to whittle down the opponent’s health points from 100 to 0. While the premise may seem simple, games play out rarely as such. Complex layers of strategy permeate through every fiber of the game, from juggling between control of your light, medium, and heavy minion-athletes, to dodging and evading your opponent’s damaging auras, to casting magic in order to eliminate the other team’s players. Although it may sound complex, Pyre is extremely easy to pick up, and hard to put down. I cannot wait to play more when it releases later in 2017.
1 – Iconoclasts
If there was one game that really blew me away this weekend, it was Iconoclasts. Developed by one-man army Joakim Sandberg, Iconoclasts is a Metroidvania-inspired action-platformer set in a world where machines are subject to the prejudice of their human counterparts. Players play the role of Robin, a kind-hearted mechanic who hopes to bridge the divide between man and machine. From what I played, the premise is interesting, and the writing sharp and full of heart. However, it’s the tight controls and phenomenal level design that really helped to set Iconoclasts apart from its peers. Given that its developer has been working on the game for over seven years, it isn’t all that surprising that the game has been polished to a shiny sheen. And since Sandberg told me at PAX that he’s targeting a 2017 release for the game, I couldn’t be more excited to play more in the coming months.