Lots of people spent their time at PAX East this past weekend waiting for hours in long lines for an opportunity to play or watch demos of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Final Fantasy VII Remake, and Baldur’s Gate 3. Luckily, for those looking to avoid the lines to play those blockbusters, there was also a plethora of indie titles on the show floor.
Since the inaugural PAX East in 2010, the convention has become a great place to play the newest indies, and this year, in particular, seemed to have an overabundance to try. Everywhere you turned on the show floor, there were small developers offering not just demos for their games, but unique opportunities to talk directly with the designers, artists, and writers.
I managed to play about 30 different games over the course of the four days of the event, but even so, it felt like I only scratched the surface on what was on display. Of those games, 10 stood out. These are the ones I’m looking forward to playing more of when they finally get released over the next year or so.
THE BIG CON
The Big Con is like a mix of the ‘90s Nickelodeon cartoon aesthetic with the comedic gameplay of a LucasArts adventure game, with a number of ways to get to your goal. The demo on the show floor had players going to a mall to get enough money for a train ticket. You could get that money a number of ways: pickpocketing everyone at the mall, stealing the hot new toy from one parent to sell to another, winning a promotional contest for a clear canned ham, or locating some hard-to-find beach-themed knickknacks to sell to the guy who runs the pawnshop. In the demo, the game — in particular, the writing — managed to strike a good balance of not being too nostalgic for the ‘90s or too mocking of it.
Developed by Mighty Yell; coming soon to PC and unspecified consoles
This is an action roleplaying dungeon crawler where the weapons you use are also people who you can date and have relationships with. That means you have to find a weapon that not only fits your playstyle, but also matches your personality. Improving that relationship earns you access to new abilities that the weapon can use when you go into the dungeon. And the social events that help build that bond occur not just in the town outside the dungeon, but in the dungeon itself. This adds to your desire to explore deeper into the dungeon for better equipment and to improve your relationship with your partner / weapon.
Developed by Kitfox; releasing sometime in 2020 for the Nintendo Switch, PC, and Mac
Set in a city that looks like it came out of Blade Runner or The Fifth Element, Cloudpunk has you delivering packages across a city of massively tall skyscrapers in a flying car. You play as a driver on their first night of work for the delivery service Cloudpunk. The game’s story unfolds as you make deliveries and begin to make choices about whether you should be delivering what you picked up or if maybe you can find someone else to take it for a bigger payday. Your choices can change how later deliveries play out and how characters react to you. Or you can just cruise around the city after customizing your flying car.
Developed by Ion Labs; releasing in 2020 for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch
Part bullet hell, part deathtrap, Disc Room comes from the same developers as Minit. The game has you trying to survive as long as you can in rooms filled with various combinations of deadly saws; some slowly move through the room, others quickly sprint at you, and some explode into smaller saws. Surviving is hard enough, but most rooms also have locked doors, which can only be opened by completing certain challenges. These might be surviving 20 seconds across a number of rooms or they might require you to die via a certain number of unique saw types. There was also an all-gold room with what looked like an abstract model of a solar system deep in the demo, which seemed to indicate that there would be some less kinetic puzzle-oriented rooms, although the developers refused to comment on said room.
Developed by Kitty Calis, Jan Willem Nijman, Terri Vellmann, and Doseone; releasing in 2020 for PC
Playing Pathless feels like moving through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild but with the kineticism of movement in Marvel’s Spider-Man. You play as a woman trying to return light to the plateau she lives on after it became infected by darkness. As you move through the world, you are constantly shooting these floating eye cubes that provide you with the power to boost your speed. It is immensely satisfying to chain together boosts as you shoot down the eyes and as you run, jump, and slide all over the place to seek out the items you need to restore parts of the forest.
Developed by Giant Squid; releasing in 2020 for the PlayStation 4, PC, and Apple Arcade
I was surprised to learn that the narrative aspects of survival rogue-lite Red Lantern were less about the woman you play who drives the sled and more about the dogs. Each dog has their own story that you work through when you have them as the leader of your sled dog team. The dogs you choose for your team can affect not only how a dog’s story develops, but what sort of events occur. But you can only reveal that story if you manage your food and supplies for your driver and her dogs as they make their way across the Alaskan wilderness.
Developed by Timberline Studio; releasing in 2020 for PC, Xbox One and the Nintendo Switch
SHE DREAMS ELSEWHERE
While it will draw comparisons to Undertale due to its look, She Dream Elsewhere seems to take more inspiration from the Persona series. In the game’s turn-based battle system, enemies have specific elemental weaknesses that you have to figure out and then use to do more damage to them as well as affect the turn order. There is also a surreal, almost psychedelic feel to the game’s aesthetic, which makes things seem both familiar and unnerving in a sort of dreamlike way.
Developed by Studio Zevere; releasing in 2020 for PC, Mac, Linux, and Xbox One
A SPACE FOR THE UNBOUND
Set in the late ‘90s in a rural part of Indonesia, A Space for the Unbound is a bit like if a Makoto Shinkai film (Your Name and Weathering with You) was a side-scrolling adventure game. The demo followed a teenage boy named Atma who has the ability to go into people’s minds to help them work through problems or issues they are having. He initially uses it to help a close friend who is having anxiety about her writing, but later in the demo, it’s also used to help someone get some much-needed sleep so that he can take an item he needs. Like a Shinkai film, it seems there will be a bit of magical realism, teenage romance, and a looming world-altering disaster to contend with.
Developed by Mojiken Studio; releasing in 2020 for the PC
This is an absolutely gorgeous game that’s a surprising mix of resource management and helping spirits work through their issues in order to pass on into the afterlife. You recruit spirits to join your boat by building a place for them on it, which requires resources you gather from the different islands you travel to and then process in facilities (like a lumber mill or a loom) on your boat. It seems like it’ll be an ideal couch co-op game; one person can control Stella the novice ferrymaster while the other controls her cat, letting you gather or process multiple resources at the same time.
Developed by Thunder Lotus Games; releasing in 2020 for the PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch
One part RPG and one part beat ’em up, Young Souls has you playing as teenage twins Jenn and Tristan as they try to keep an other-world magical army from invading the Earth. Like a Persona game, you spend your days as a normal teen going to school or hanging out around town to build up some of your skills, before spending your nights traveling through the portal to battle the various threats to their world. The game also has a great style that mixes 2D characters in 3D environments, which looks especially impressive during the cut scenes.