This year’s Penny Arcade Expo may go down in history for the Coronavirus scares and The Last of Us Part II’s absence, but those who braved the show were rewarded with more exciting games than any one person could possibly digest. I left the show feeling like I barely scratched the surface. For every game I played, there were five more that looked intriguing. The best I can do is tell you a bit about the games I managed to see. (With a little help from a guest: my wife, Bree!)
Let’s start with the games Bree played:
This game is for all of the readers out there. It combines both my love of reading and interactive mysteries. In Unmemory, you wake up in a room covered in blood and suffering from memory loss. The presentation looks just like a e-book, and the player scrolls down to move the story forward. Nestled throughout the written text are images relating to what’s happening as you read. What’s cool is that those images have clues not visible the first time you see them. After learning that there may be a combination on the back of a painting, I scrolled back up to where I first saw the painting and interacted with it, revealing the clue needed to proceed. Such a fun concept that had me actively reading into everything in search of answers.
Interrogation: You Will Be Deceived
Obviously there is a theme with the kind of games I gravitate towards. In Interrogation, you are the lead investigator interrogating suspects in multiple scenarios. The instance I played involved a robbery gone wrong. I had to interview both the suspect’s husband and the thief to find out what happened. It’s a text-based story game where you review a case file, then try to get the suspects to open up to you based on the types of questions you ask and the order you ask them. The concept sounded interesting initially, but I found myself let-down and confused by all the different things to take into consideration: pupil dilating, pulse, information consistency, and the option to “rough up the suspect” in order to have them be more willing to confess. (Note: This game actually released last year.)
This game appeals to the cute-animal-with-a-whittle-sword-beating-up-things-and-exploring itch I have. Seriously though, Tunic is an action-adventure game similar to The Legend of Zelda in gameplay. You play as a fox in a…wait for it…tunic and you find items and weapons as you explore the world. What I loved besides the art style, was that when you pick up things and read signs the game has its own indecipherable language. It just added to the world for me.
I’m not usually one to glom onto a tactical RPG where you have to plan five moves ahead, but the art style and lore in this game grabbed me. The game is made up of only three colors: black, red, and white. In this game, you play as The Daughters. The Daughters are echoes of warriors who have fallen in battle and have one of the three base skills: Bladesmaster, Soulslinger, and Shieldbearer. The Daughters are in a fight against the hordes of monsters that are trying to take over the world. What makes this game tricky is that every Daughter that you grow and play as, could die in the battle. Like perma-die. So planning and preparing for each encounter is vital to keeping your character alive.
I love Annapurna’s games (I’ve played Sayonara Wild Hearts, Donut County, watched Outer Wilds, and I’m halfway through Kentucky Route Zero). I went into this game slightly-biased by my success rate with loving their prior games. If Found is an interactive visual novel where you are an eraser. You follow Kasio, a person who is creative and young and full of rebellion. In order to learn her story, you have to erase her words in her diary and her memories. But by erasing everything, it raises the question—are you erasing everything that makes Kasio a person and by doing so erasing them from the world? Such a beautiful game in both art style and concept. I look forward to its release.
And here’s what I played:
If you disliked the controls in Outer Wilds, then you may want to steer clear of Hardspace Shipbreaker. That said, after fumbling with the controls and trying to suss out the premise of the game, I finally started to see the potential of this oddly-named game. You’re basically a space shipyard scrapper, using laser cutters and tethers to dissect a ship and remove all the valuable bits. All the while you have to manage oxygen and health. More than a few times I hurt myself running into floating space debris or accidentally exploding part of the ship. It’s a bit like surgery, with a lot less gravity. I think the controls could use some work, but I also think it’s an intriguing premise. I imagine dismantling scrap heaps in space could be really relaxing for a subset of folks.
Saturnalia’s PAX demo felt like the beginnings of a horror game that could become something truly special, or remain feeling like a half-baked idea. I loved the art style, which uses sketchy textures and a stop-motion animation feel for its characters, combined with a weirdly vibrant color palette for a horror game. Still, the promise of randomly generated environments turned me off a bit. I come to indie horror games like this for a bite-sized experience, not something I can play and replay indefinitely.
The Artful Escape
I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but even I can appreciate the serious lack of musical storytelling in games. That’s what makes an otherwise simple side-scroller like The Artful Escape so promising. I have no expectations for complex game mechanics or a robust playtime. I just want to get goosebumps as guitar riffs ignite rainbow patterns and strange alien creatures into the sky. Sometimes the simple pleasures are more than enough.
Streets of Rage 4
Axel got a dad bod. Blaze is alarmingly thick. Adam from the original Streets of Rage is back and he has a little sister! Streets of Rage 4 seems to be having fun with the franchise while respecting what made these the pinnacle of beat ‘em ups back in the day. I was hesitant about the art style, but it feels like a genuine stylistic choice and not just a shortcut to smooth 2D visuals. I’m curious what new mechanics the final game will introduce. The demo hinted at a more advanced comboing and juggling system than previous games.
Those Who Remain
I wish I could be more excited about Those Who Remain, but a handful of good ideas couldn’t save the rough edges of this demo. The concept is simple: stay in the light. Silhouetted figures stand imposingly at the edges of the darkness, blinking out of existence when a light switch is flipped. The visual trick is really creepy the first time, but without more enhanced animations for the shadowy figures, they become a cheap trick within minutes. Still, I really like the idea of a horror game where the death mechanic revolves around puzzle-solving. I hope they can pull it off, but the May release date seems a little too close for things to change drastically.
Dangerous Driving 2
Burnout Paradise’s release was one of the seminal moments in the video game racing genre. Since its release, very few games have attempted to capture its particular brand of fun, and EA seems content to pretend it never happened. Meanwhile, a small indie team known as Three Fields Entertainment has been tinkering away on games in the same spirit, culminating in their upcoming release, Dangerous Driving 2. The demo I played was a bit early, with some tricky controls and punishing collisions, but it does feel a lot like Burnout. This new game is planned as an open world experience, just like Burnout Paradise. But my biggest question now isn’t whether it can capture the spirit of Burnout Paradise, it’s whether it can surpass it.
Predator Hunting Grounds
Asymmetrical multiplayer games can be hit-or-miss, but the ideas always feel fresh and cool at the onset. This game pits a single player-controlled Predator against four player-controlled marines who must complete objectives and fight off AI-controlled soldiers. From my perspective as a soldier, the game felt tactical and rewarding, with a compass that made it easy for us to call out positions a la PUBG and other battle royale games. The shooting felt smooth, but the AI was braindead, and our encounters with the Predator felt limited. Hunting Grounds needs some polish, but it’s on my radar at this point.
We spent entirely too long waiting in line to play this ridiculous spoof of Jaws. In the end, it was debatable whether it was worth it. There’s some substance to this arcade-style shark attack sim, but I’m having a tough time imagining hours spent chomping on humans and watching this truly absurd narrative play out. The demo ends with the big bad antagonist killing you, stringing you up, realizing you were pregnant, and then proceeding to gut the baby sharks. The tone of this admittedly comical game may be a bit too mean-spirited for my tastes.
The Wild at Heart
Combining Pikmin and Luigi’s Mansion with the look of a hand-painted Double Fine game, The Wild at Heart is a cutesy game worth keeping an eye on. The demo felt a little too chatty and tutorialized, but otherwise it was a treat to explore, suck up gems, and send my party of little creatures to attack. Time will tell if this game has the depth to entertain over multiple hours, but there’s a lot of potential behind this beautiful game.
Season was my personal game of the show. It was one of those incredible surprises you can only experience at a show like PAX. You are an explorer leaving your community to study and document other cultures, with the goal of bringing back your discoveries. Your first stop is a valley that’s a day away from total destruction, as a dam is about to break and flood it entirely. The people, structures, and animals you meet will be gone forever in less than 24 hours, so you set off on a bicycle, taking photos, drawing, and writing. The look and feel of the game is a lot like a modern day Breath of the Wild, where the ancient ruins are remnants of old highways, rather than ancient temples. Outside of exploration, you make choices about how you want to document everything. At one point, I came upon an abandoned herd of cows, left behind with a radio that played their “favorite music”. I could turn it off, turn it up, or change the station. Turning it up, I was told the cows were soothed. I suspect Season will eventually be made up of dozens of these kinds of choices—meaningless to an overall plot, but powerful in the moment.