PAX Picks 2019

Okay, so last week was PAX West, and the thing I love most about going to PAX is checking out all the indie games I’d (almost always) never heard of. I got to try out over 40 games over 4 days. The incredible creativity and talent from these developers impresses me every year, even for the games that just are not my cup of tea. So, I’ve picked my top ten and I’m gonna recommend you check every single one of them out. Naturally I have my style that I like and you’re gonna see that in this list. If you’re not into colorful, arty, often-pretentious games, my list will look pretty alien.

Anyway, here are my ten favorite games I saw at PAX. Don’t think too hard about the order. The only one I’m sure belongs in its spot is #1.

#10: Quantum League

quantum league.jpg

Developed by: NGD Studios. Check out the game here.

I’m not usually a fan of online competitive games, or shooters, or this particular art style, so if I say this game is fun you better believe me. I actually ignored this one for a couple days on the assumption I wouldn’t like it, which shows you how razor-sharp my mind is. Anyway, about the game:

Basically, it’s a team shooter, except each player is their own team. I don’t mean it’s a free-for-all. I mean each individual player controls one person who is an entire team. Your goal, at least in the demo I played, is to have your player occupy the center area when time runs out. Each round takes 12 seconds. The best part? Once the time runs out, a copy of each player is saved. In the next round, while you’re doing your thing, the copies are also playing with you, doing whatever they did in the previous round. If you manage to kill a copy of your opponent, then whatever that opponent did after that point is nullified - so if the copy killed your copy, your copy now gets to live. It’s a perfect mix of shooter action and brain teaser and you should all definitely give it a try.

#9: Backbone


Developed by: Egg Nut. Check out the game here.

Another one on the list I wouldn’t have expected. I’ve had bad experiences with games trying to be dark and gritty, but Backbone isn’t trying to be edgy, it just is. Yeah, the characters are anthropomorphic mammals and such, but there’s nothing cutesy or furry about it. Backbone bills itself as a Dystopian Noir Thriller and it definitely delivers. I don’t want to say too much more in that regard so as to not give anything away, suffice to say that it is a pretty good attempt at making a more grimdark Zootopia.

While the demo really captures the atmosphere of the game, it doesn’t give you a lot of time to really test the mechanics. Of course, with a slower-paced, more text oriented game, mechanics often don’t factor into the equation. But I wonder if there are mechanical surprises to come, rather than just text interaction. The demo contains one such moment which was a nice puzzle, so I have high hopes for it.

#8: Skellboy


Developed by: Umaiki Games. Check out the game here.

I think what really drew me to this one was the way the gameplay and art style mixed. It really reminds me of Paper Mario. Instead of playing as 2D sprites in a 3D world, however, you play a one voxel wide model in a 3D world. In a period now where lots of indie devs are trying to mix visual styles I can’t recall seeing anyone do this one, at least not successfuly. The graphics match the gameplay perfectly - it’s silly like a Paper Mario game without being too much “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” parody.

Gotta say, I dig the soundtrack too. One of the better ones I heard at PAX, even though this demo only had a couple tracks. The music has a retro feel without being too chiptune and gave me a real Grant Kirkhope vibe, so 10/10 to the composer on this one.

#7: Calico


Developed by CatBean Games. Check out the game here.

Do I have to tell you why you should be interested in this game? Do I have to tell you, in the year of our lord twenty nineteen, that a game where you play as a cute girl running a cat cafe and riding a giant cat like a horse, that you should be interested in this game?

This game is still in its early stages, so all you can do is play a short, proof-of-concept demo. It says something that this short demo is enough to completely sell me on the idea. Keep an eye on this one, folks.

And if you don’t like cats, fuck outta here.

#6: Newt One

Newt One.jpg

Developed by DevNAri. Check out the game here.

This game wins my world-famous, coveted “Surprise of the Year” award (look it up). I saw it at the Minibooth and it did not grab my attention at all. Then I talked to the devs and tried it and absolutely loved it. Perhaps the reason I almost missed out is that the art style, while colorful and quirky, wasn’t my thing. Don’t be dumb like me. Get this one, as it is one of the few on this list you can buy right now.

There’s also the nostalgia factor for this one, as it is very reminiscent of mid-to-late 90s 3D games. Low-poly, bright colors, inexplicably floating platforms, wacky characters - it’s all here. I originally told the devs it reminded me of Banjo-Kazooie, but now I don’t think that comparison is quite true. The game is quirky, yes, but not comedic. I’d say it’s more about exploration and discovery than it is a collect-a-thon. Either way, don’t miss it.

#5: Heartbound


Developed by Pirate Software. Check out the game here.

Apparently this one’s been out for a while and I have been oblivious. I have heard of Pirate Software, though. They like to livestream their dev process, which is a really cool (and risky!) thing to do.

Apparently, this game gets compared a lot to Undertale. I see it, but I also don’t see it. The comparison might come because there aren’t a lot of indie pixel-art RPGs out there. Undertale is one of the few anyone’s heard of, so that comparison is bound to come up. Some of the quirkiness of Undertale is present in this game as well. However, from what I played, my experience was very different. While quirky, this game doesn’t succumb to the memey humor or self-reference of Undertale. In fact, Heartbound is at heart (heh heh) a serious game. The moments of humor are clever (even the dumb dad jokes) but underneath it all is this real sense of loss and longing that rounds out the experience.

Also, there is a talking dog and he’s my friend.

#4: The World Next Door

Developed by Rose City Games. Check out the game here.

I saw this one at PAX 2018 as well, though at the time it wasn’t finished. Now it is, and it’s available this instant! The World Next Door is billed as a mash-up between a visual novel and a match-three action game.

From my experience with the game, it leans more heavily toward the visual novel side of things, which is fine, as the character design is absolutely fantastic. Quirky character writing is difficult to do. If you don’t go far enough it’s boring, but if you aren’t careful your dialogue gets stilted and cringey in a “how do you do, fellow kids” way. This game walks that line well. The characters all have vibrant personalities without being lol-random types, and come across as young and impetuous without being the standard idiot tropes that exist in games about kids.

I like Horace.

#3: Chicory


Developed by Greg Lobanov. No website yet exists for the game but you can donate to the Kickstarter, even after it ends!

As of this writing, the Kickstarter has a couple more days. However, it’s more than fully funded and you’ll be able to back it late, which I recommend doing. It’s by the stellar creator of Wandersong, Greg Lobanov, and the music is composed by Celeste’s own Lena Raine. There are probably other very talented people involved but those are the two names you’re most likely to recognize, sorry.

Chicory involves coloring. Sometimes you color inside the lines, sometimes you don’t. But the screen coloring is just the mechanic to get you started. The game itself celebrates expression and individual personality. Kind of like Wandersong. I’m detecting a theme, Mr. Lobanov. Anyway, it’s light, beautiful, unique, and clever, and if there are no other reasons than that you should back this game. Lobanov is a tested developer with a good game behind him already, so you can’t go wrong here.

#2: Superliminal


Developed by Pillow Castle Games. Check out the game here!

When I stood by this booth, I heard all sorts of comparisons coming from fans. This game was like Portal. Like Antichamber. Like the Stanley Parable. And it definitely plays like one of those games. This was the only demo that was so much pure joy to mess around with that I tried the demo twice. I can’t wait until this one is done. Don’t know when, but sign me up!

Basically, Superliminal is a game about perspective. You progress by changing your perspective of objects, which then realign themselves to fit into new arrangments. You know that joke picture that goes around of the guy pretending to hold the sun between his fingers? Imagine if you could do that and then just, pluck the sun out of the air and now the sun is half an inch big. That’s the game. That’s what you do. If that doesn’t excite you all over then you’re a bad person.

#1: Spiritfarer


Developed by ThunderLotus Games. Check out the game here!

Easily my favorite from PAX this year. This game has it all - a fantastic premise, beautiful art and music, seamless gameplay, wonderful characters, and a hug button. You play Stella, the one who captains the boat which ferries the dead over to the “other side.” It’s also a sim management style of game, so you add structures and gadgets to your boat. The visual style was described to me by the devs as “Disney meets Studio Ghibli” and that’s the perfect comparison. I don’t even know what else to say about this other than how superlative this experience was to play and how much you should be excited about it!

Why are you still reading this? There are no more games. Get out there and buy/wishlist these already!