Un-PAXing (Part 1: Games)

April 15, 2012

PAX East began with me waking up at 4 a.m. to take my taxi to the airport to a bus to the metro to the hotel to wait for a shuttle that never came to take another taxi to PAX East. //phew// I’ve spent the last week un-PAXing, which is a combination of unpacking, digesting three days of straight-up gameness and jumping right back into the usual day-to-day responsibilities.

I spent some time at the AAA booths (2K Games, Square Enix, Sega), but most of my PAX East time was dedicated to the alleys of indie games, which had seriously great offerings this year. Now, in no particular order, here are highlights from my third PAX East adventure.

Party of Sin
I had seen an earlier build of Party of Sin, a cooperative platformer where you shift among the seven deadly sins to solve puzzles and fight your way from hell to heaven,  and the near-final version has improved a lot.

Luke, Crankshaft Games’ environmental artist and one of its D.C.-based team members, walked me through the cooperative version of the first level, which was a new iteration from Party of Sin’s GDC build that had single-player and cooperative modes as one and the same. The first level itself is structurally the same, but the two modes now have their own set of tutorials to make learning the sins’ abilities specific to single- or two-player playthroughs.

The demo couldn’t have taken longer than 15 to 20 minutes. As Luke explained the different ways puzzles could be solved, I found the cooperative play was equal parts fun and challenging, and required frequent back-and-forth communication (i.e., “OK, I’m going to hit this switch, eat you as Gluttony and spit you up onto that ledge” versus another possible solution like, “I’ll grapple up to the ledge and pull you up with the hookshot.”). But my poor sleep-deprived brain was struggling to keep up with the influx of character-related information. Keeping track of the one or two special abilities each sin had was a little taxing, even though the pace at which you acquire the sins and learn their abilities throughout the first level was well balanced.

I’m looking forward to Party of Sins’ Steam debut (tentatively set for July, with a $10 to $15 price tag) and, as local devs, I wish them luck with getting through the rest of the XBLA review process.

Miegakure

I last saw Marc ten Bosch’s mind-bending 4D puzzler at PAX East 2010, and time has been good to this game. Its scenery, animations and general look have been improved over the past two years. I still find the 4D, plane-shifting concept difficult to follow at times, as the advanced mathematics that power Miegakure’s concept, which ten Bosch understands with near-superhuman precision, sure don’t come naturally to me. I’m really hoping it gets a release date soon (or that I can shift to a dimension where it exists), because I’m excited to see the final product.

SSE&P (PC) and Super Time Force
Swords and Sworcery E&P looks great on a big screen. I think the original touch controls will forever be my favorite, but the PC/Mac version mousing and drag-and-drop handles well. I chatted briefly with Craig Adams, who spoke frankly about the development process, and was a little insulted that I likened the script he wrote for SSE&P to hipster-like jive. What I found really impressive, as he detailed the varopis iterations of the script that was initially too serious, is that he had written the text within the last two to three months of making SSE&P. I dunno about you, but to me, that doesn’t seem like a lot of time.

I’m also now sufficiently hyped for Super Time Force, which at first glance appears unforgivingly difficult, but as you constantly respawn and watch a “ghost” version of your playthrough re-run in the background of your current attempt, it all starts to make sense and add up into a ballistic assault on the overwhelming enemy forces. It’s entertaining even to watch.

Not Without You
Puzzle-based games were particularly prevalent among the indie games at PAX, and for some reason Bad Pilcrow’s Not Without You  really stuck with me. The concept isn’t new, and I know I’ve seen it nestled within many other games, but the art and music of Not Without You is so adorably alluring.

The goal of the game is to herd a group of cryptids, cute blue fox-like creatures, to a set of exits. However, the cryptids all move in the same direction, so moving them to their respective exits takes some tricky maneuvering. There’s no release date set for Not Without You, but chances are you own at least one of the platforms it’ll be on: Windows PC, iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7 and XBLA.

OMG JOUST AND I GOT TO MEET DOUG OF DIE GUTE FABRIK
JS Joust

As an unofficial offering at PAX East, Doug Wilson tweeted several Joust-related events, which took place in the hallways and even on the Boston T/metro. I’ve mentioned Joust here before, and it remains one of my favorite games to play and just watch other people play. It always makes me wish there were more motion-based games like it.

I also got to meet Joust creator and Die Gute Fabrik developer Doug Wilson in person, which is quite possibly my favorite part of the whole weekend, as I got to talk to him about Die Gute Fabrik’s next game, Mutazione.

Antichamber
Calling Antichamber a first-person adventure puzzler just doesn’t seem as accurate as a first-person shift in mind-set. You’re not climbing into a world of the typical gaming conventions, where objectives are clearly outlined in tutorials and hallways always take you in the same direction. You’re trying to push your way through a web of Alexander Bruce’s oddly crafted rules that have been constructed and reconstructed again based on past playtesters’ expectations and experiences.

Antichamber was formed from Alexander salvaging his collection of Unreal Tournament 3 mod prototypes, which I find really fascinating after hearing about IGDA DC game devs’ personal prototype graveyards (something all devs have, apparently). After E3 2010, he connected all the lose ends to these prototypes and began adjusting the result according to playtester feedback. Instead of taking steps back when he hit design roadblocks, he just forged forward with reworking his current content into a workable solution.

By the time Alexander came over to gently remind me that I had been playing for 27 minutes, I stood up, and as I walked away, felt for a fleeting few minutes a new perspective of my surroundings based on Antichamber’s rules. I’m super glad it was fleeting, because it was eerie, creepy. I’m jumping back into this bizarre abyss when Antichamber is released for PC/Mac this year. (Congrats to Alexander on being funded by Indiefund, too!)

Dyad

I really wanted to spend more time with Dyad, a racing/shooter/puzzler hybrid reminiscent of Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s vibrant Lumines or Child of Eden color palette and audio. You’re luge down a tunnel of Tron-like light and sound, pairing same-colored nodes of light while weaving among them to avoid hitting them and taking damage. The more lights you pair, the faster you travel and the more you build up your lance meter, which allows you to temporarily destroy anything in your path for a nice bonus and extra health. It’s fast-paced, fun and a thrill to play. In the more difficult levels, I had a constant white-knuckle grip on the controller. It’s fascinating PSN indie titles like this that make me glad I have a PS3.

Heroes of Ruin
The 3DS owners I know are pretty hyped for this title, and I began to see why after playing a quick demo as a gunner at the Square Enix booth. The visuals are very nice, the combat plays well, and, while I didn’t get to try this out at PAX, the Streetpass mode is supposed to allow players exchange and access items from each others’ games.

Gamebook Adventures
I’m glad Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows posted on IGDA DC’s Facebook group about Tin Man Games’ PAX East booth, because otherwise, I might have missed them entirely. Gamebook Adventures is a neat blend of choose-your-own-adventure e-book and old-school Dungeons & Dragons.I’m playing through the Siege of the Necromancer Gamebook right now (on an iPhone regrettably; I think I’d really rather play/read this on iPad) and am enjoying it so far, mostly because it’s pushing me to play a more traditional form of role-playing that I never tried. The luck of dice-rolling seems to be a good match for the haphazard journeying that’s inherent in the choose-your-own adventure books. (Also, they give you 10 bookmarks, which is great because if I recall anything about reading Goosebumps choose-your-own-adventure books, it’s that I used at least 20.) Now just imagine if they had done this with Game of Thrones.

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