2019’s PAX East gaming expo was as overwhelming as ever. The cavalcade of big names, future indie darlings, and oh-so many hidden gems was meant to keep attendees occupied for as many as four days.
That meant my two days on the showfloor were nonstop triage. I walked by very cool-looking games with very long lines, like Control, Katana Zero, and Cyber Shadow. Sometimes, I’d pick up the controller at some very empty demo stations to try some very underwhelming games, just because there was no line.
A few games had some potential, but their short demos did them no favors. Man of Medan, from the developers of Until Dawn, seemed pretty rough, but it certainly didn’t help that it was a dark horror game in a well-lit room played with low-volume headphones.
Void Bastards had an incredible art style, but it was hard to tell if this first-person roguelike will blossom into a game I want to spend hours with. I spent a large chunk of my demo chipping away at tiny enemies with weak guns and making dumb mistakes before dying unceremoniously.
And my one match of Mortal Kombat 11? Well, it was cool and all, but hardly enough to judge the game on.
That said, sometimes a game comes along with an initial pitch that’s so strong, I know I’ll be picking it up on day one. That happened three times at a PAX East this year. And so, here are the three games that, based on first impressions, I give you my highest endorsement. Keep an eye on these…
In Night Call, you play as a Paris taxi driver who barely survives a run-in with a serial killer. Your connection to the crimes, combined with your knowledge of the city make you the perfect person to help the detectives trying to catch the killer. A few veiled threats and a stack of evidence later, and you’re out on the streets working your shift.
You spend each night of gameplay picking customers for your taxi service, striking up conversations with them while the ride plays out. Depending on your choices, you could get a lead, or you may piss off the passenger and receive a lousy tip. Afterwards, you get some time to read over case files before getting to bed.
I completed one night of what I assume is the core loop of the game. I was immediately struck by the writing—the most important part of a visual novel-style game—and the neo-noir style was beautiful. This is the kind of game I can imagine enjoying cuddled up on the couch, in the dark, with headphones and a Nintendo Switch.
While there’s really no place in the world for a trash protagonist like Duke Nukem in 2019, his most infamous game, Duke Nukem 3D, holds a nostalgic place in my heart. There’s something uniquely retro about that game’s aesthetic. Outside of the dumb one-liners and pixelated strippers, that game looked cool, played fast, and was packed with fun secrets.
Ion Maiden is everything that was cool, corny, and satisfying about Duke Nukem 3D, without all the problematic nonsense required to bring Duke Nukem kicking and screaming into the current millenium.
The game is a retro visual feast with just the right mix of cleaned up visuals and old school aesthetic. The one-liners are awfully cheesy. The enemy design is some of the most beautifully 90s pixel art I’ve seen in some time.
It all just works so well. And while I enjoyed the twitch action on a mouse and keyboard, I was assured this game would be coming to consoles as well, where I can enjoy it on a controller like the inferior plebeian I am.
Sayonara Wild Hearts
I’ll never forget my first few minutes with Sayonara Wild Hearts. I jumped onto a Nintendo Switch demo station, popped on a pair of loud, noise-cancelling headphones, and completely forgot where I was. The crowded showfloor washed away. I got goosebumps as the music swelled and the action played out. It was incredible.
The power of this game comes from how little you actually do in it. This is an on-rails game of dodging and hitting buttons to the beat. I understood how to play it after about three seconds. It’s only as complicated as it needs to be to keep you engaged.
The minimal inputs allow the developers to script out an assault of incredible sequences. If you’ve enjoyed games like Rez, Panzer Dragoon, or even Ikaruga (as hard as it is), you understand the power of deeply linear, scripted action games like this.
Typically I’m excited to play an upcoming game in advance. With Sayonara Wild Hearts, I was more angry that I couldn’t have the full game right then and there. This one is an immediate purchase for me. Do not sleep on it.