Darren is a scientist and an educator by day, and a writer and reviewer by night. While he enjoys shooters, RPGs, platformers, strategy, and rhythm games, he takes particular interest in independent games. Additionally, he produces the Zero Cool Podcast, and he plays board games quite a bit.
I mentioned in my PAX blog that a post on the PAX 10 would be coming. Here it is. In its third year now, the PAX 10 is a tradition at the Penny Arcade Expo, in which ten independently developed games are showcased as some of the best examples of low budget videogame titles. They are typically released as downloadable games on a variety of platforms. However, not all of the PAX 10 games were created equally, and like I did last year, this countdown list intends to zero in on the indie games to look out for.
Plane Weaver is a 3D puzzle-platformer developed by a team of students out of Denmark. As a result, the game is free to download from the link above. It details the journal of a girl named Silke who is trying to return her brother's soul from a race of machines who feed on human energy. She has the ability to assume three different forms: an agile human form that lets her run and jump, a massive demon form that allows her to push items and destroy machinery, and an ethereal soul form that can pass through certain objects, but restricts movement from player control to only being able to ride on steam jets.
The idea is an interesting one, but there are a couple of hangups in the control department. As a PC game, movement is controlled with the mouse, but with no means of camera control, some of the platform locations are difficult to judge. The checkpoints are relatively frequent, but there is still a pretty substantial amount of frustration involved in missing a jump and having to redo an entire difficult section. Another issue with control is that the three forms are mapped to the same button. Pressing the C key toggles between Silke's human and demon forms, and holding it puts her into soul form. The problem is that after holding C, the game interprets it as a long button press, so going into soul form from human form returns the player into demon form, and another quick button press is required to revert to human form.
Aside from the missteps with the controls, the game itself is impressive in that it was built from the ground up by a relatively small team in only a single month. It also pushes into relatively uncharted territory, as puzzle platformers are typically relegated to two dimensions, so many of the issues the game has are probably a result of being pioneers of sorts.
Hegemony: Philip of Macedon is probably the one game in the PAX 10 that seemed most out of place. Despite being independently developed, it initially appears to be a big budget release, with impressive 3D graphics, and extremely deep real-time strategy gameplay. It follows the real historical events around Philip II of Macedon's life, and it covers the entire area of ancient Greece.
One cool bit in Hegemony is that the map has several levels of zoom, each with different representations of the occurrences in a particular area, and transition between the levels is smooth. The really interesting part of the game is that it is not focused entirely on combat, but puts an emphasis on managing supply lines; the player can cut an enemy's supply chain and starve out a defending force, or raze his own farms to avoid their capture.
The irony of the situation is that the real downfall of Hegemony in comparison to its peers among the PAX 10 finalists is that it is so deep and complex, that a significant amount of time would have to be spent with it to really get a feel for the game. Whereas other titles on this list could be picked up and played immediately, many seemed daunted by the sheer amount of information involved in this one.
8. Fowl Space Platform: PC and Mac
Release date: holiday 2010
Fowl Space is a run 'n' gun shooter starring a spacefaring rooster. Developed by Pixelante, who have several free Flash-based games playable on their site, it began as a joke that the creators came up with in order to deal with boredom. It has a stark silhouetted art style, but its main selling point is in its juvenile humor and not-so-vague sexual innuendo.
For example, the protagonist, being a rooster astronaut, goes by the title of Astrocock, and he rides in a phallic rocket ship called the Thruster. His main weapon for fighting the lingerie-wearing Viking enemies is a caulking gun that fires out unspecified sticky white goo, and it requires time to recharge to full power.
Past the humor, there appeared to be very little to make Fowl Space stand out. The gameplay is pretty standard fare; navigate levels, jump from platform to platform, shoot enemies. It's solid, but it's not groundbreaking by any means. If Pixelante keeps up with its tradition of providing free online Flash games, then this may be worth checking out, but if the company decides to start charging, then only a person who has significant appreciation for low-brow humor should look into it.
7. Solace Platform: PC
Release date: available now
Solace joins Plane Weaver as the other student project among the PAX 10 finalists. It is a shmup with five levels, representing the five stages of grief. Along with the beautiful minimalistic visuals, audio plays a significant role in the game. Each shot fired contributes to the game's soundtrack, and depending on the level, it can encourage or deter the player.
Really, the element of Solace that makes it stand out from other shmups is that each of the different levels plays significantly differently from one another. In the Anger stage, enemies fill the screen and litter it with bullets, but pacifism is rewarded as enemy deaths spill even more bullets onto the stage. In the Depression stage, the player's shots are rendered useless, so he must focus more on dodging than attacking. Finally, in the Acceptance stage, the game turns the player into a total powerhouse, blanketing the entire playing field with bullets the way a boss in a shmup typically would.
The only negative point about Solace--and some may view this as a positive--is that it is very short in length. The entire game can be completed in about fifteen minutes, but for a free game developed by students, it tells a strong story of grief in those fifteen minutes.
Puzzle Bots is a cute point and click adventure game, starring five tiny robots who go on adventures to help the engineers who created them. Each has a different ability and personality, and the player must switch between them in order to solve the environmental puzzles. It almost has a Lost Vikings vibe in that each character has a special ability, but it focuses more on puzzle solving than action.
One of the real treats in Puzzle Bots isn't in the gameplay, but rather in the presentation. The humor in it is great, ranging from silly puns to snarky one-liners, and it never seems particularly forced. Each robot does have a distinct personality, and the player can pick up on that after only a few minutes with them. An unfortunate byproduct of indie development does rear its head in the presentation, and it has to do with the lack of animation for the characters. It's an understandable omission, but it really gives the game an unpolished feel.
Another minor complaint is that while most of the puzzles are clever and intuitive, there are a few pixel hunting puzzles where the player may know what he has to do, but still has to find exactly where the developer wanted him to click in order to effect his plan. Still, even with these faults, the charm of Puzzle Bots really stood out among the PAX 10 finalists.
5. Altitude Platform: PC
Release date: available now
Altitude is a 2D team-based flight combat game that is primarily played online. It has some relatively simple controls to pick up on, with buttons for turning, thrusting, primary and secondary weapons, and not much else. Despite the ease for a new player to begin playing immediately, it has such a huge breadth of game types that it could easily keep a gamer occupied for a period of time much longer than $10 normally would, provided that said gamer enjoys competition.
There is a healthy selection of different planes to choose from, though many of the choices result from having a particular body with different weapon loadouts. Still, there are at least five different bodies to choose from, ranging from the quick and nimble to the slow but heavily armored. Like many team-based games with different classes to play as, a strong team will have representatives from each class, and the members of the team should coordinate with each other in accordance to their strengths and weaknesses.
One of the most popular (and most fun) gametypes on display was the soccer mode. Much like real soccer, it involves getting a ball into the enemy team's goal. However, it plays out with much more action, given that the players are constantly blowing each other up, and since they are planes, everybody is constantly in motion. All in all, Altitude is a solid game, and it would be great for a PC gamer looking for something he can pick up, play for a bit, and put down for later.
4. Shibuya Platform: iPhone and iPad
Release date: available now
Shibuya is a simple touch-based puzzle game that tasks the player with matching colored blocks in order to clear them from the field. It sounds like something that has been done a thousand times before, but strangely, it is set up in such a way that it makes the player think in a manner completely backwards from normal. It takes a few games to un-learn strategies from other puzzle games, but once it clicks, it becomes supremely addictive.
Unlike most other puzzle games that involve falling blocks, there is only a single lane into which the blocks can fall in Shibuya. The game provides information on the colors of the five upcoming blocks, and it is the player's job to arrange them in such a way that combos are formed and the playing field never fills up entirely.
Shibuya is by far the simplest of the PAX 10 finalists, taking a single game mechanic and running with it alone, but luckily, it is a solid mechanic that makes for a particularly addictive game. Achievements and Leaderboards are present, but only the most hardcore puzzle fans will ever finish all of the Achievements or post a score near the top of the Leaderboards. Even so, at only two dollars, Shibuya seems like a great value for something that could potentially provide hundreds of hours of time wasting gameplay.
3. Super Meat Boy Platform: XBLA, WiiWare, PC
Release date: October 20th on XBLA, unannounced on other platforms
Super Meat Boy is a 2D precision platformer starring an anthropomorphic cube of meat, who is tasked with saving his girlfriend (an anthropomorphic cube of bandages) from an evil fetus in a jar. Meat Boy is a free online Flash game that gained popularity and inspired the creation of a bigger, more heavily featured downloadable release.
Super Meat Boy showed off the first three world at PAX, which included several warp zones that either transported Meat Boy back into a older, lower resolution console world, or allowed the player to use a character other than Meat Boy, taken from one of many other indie games. Gish, from the game of the same name, the ninja from N+, and Commander Video from the Bit.Trip series all make an appearance, each with his own special abilities.
Super Meat Boy was poised to take the number one spot in this countdown, and indeed it has won the title of Best in Show from Destructoid, but there were certain issues with the demo at PAX that keep it from top honors here. Some sort of lag between pressing buttons and having the actions show up on screen was present, and in a precision platformer, it's nearly gamebreaking. While it was likely an issue with the hardware present (as the Flash game controls perfectly), it was frustrating to fail a level at the fault of the game rather than the fault of the player. Still, with instant respawns and bite-sized levels, one could only be frustrated for a few moments before getting right back into it and trying to compensate for the lag.
Retro City Rampage is an open-world sandbox action game, with a graphical style that hearkens back to the 8-bit era. It follows the misadventures of a generic thug through a story so ridiculous it could only have been thought up during the 1980s, or in a game that so expertly lampoons the decade.
In addition to the graphics and gameplay ripped from the early days of gaming, Retro City Rampage is chock full of gaming and pop culture references. Within the first few minutes of the campaign, the player can spot not-so-subtle allusions to Mega Man, Duck Hunt, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the A-Team, Frogger, and several others. Retro City Rampage is the 1980s distilled, bottled, and then spilled all over the TV. Half of the fun comes in spotting references and feeling nostalgic for the old days.
The other half of the fun is in the solid arcade style gameplay, and sheer vastness of the game. More than simply having a large world map, the number of options given to the player is staggering. There are standard guns, a rocket launcher, a flamethrower, a bionic arm, and vehicles to use in order to maim enemies and random pedestrians, but if all else fails, the player can always just jump on people's heads to kill them. Retro City Rampage is pure fun, with a whacked out sense of humor and more variety than some current open-world games.
Bastion is an action-RPG starring a white-haired kid known only as "The Kid." It follows his journey to the Bastion, in order to rebuild the world that has been mysteriously torn asunder. The narrator specifically details that what precisely happened is muddled, with the line, "Proper story's supposed to start at the beginning. Ain't so simple with this one."
Speaking of the narrator, he plays a significant role in the game. He details what The Kid is doing, as the player is going through the actions. It gives Bastion a unique feel, as if it were a novel that has been brought to life with lush visuals and music.
As far as the visuals go, Bastion contains some of the most beautiful graphics ever seen in gaming. The environments are hand drawn and reminiscent of those seen in Vanillaware titles such as Odin Sphere or Muramasa: the Demon Blade. Elements of the world are constantly rebuilding themselves around The Kid, which puts an emphasis on exploration, as certain destinations are unclear until the player nears them. The Kid himself is cel-shaded, but done so well that it's initially difficult to differentiate his polygonal body from a set of well done sprites. It seems an exaggeration to say it, but Bastion may very well be the best looking videogame ever.
The gameplay itself is solid, with the player finding melee weapons, ranged weapons, and defensive items pretty early into the demo. Combat is smooth, and requires a bit more patience and skill than simple button mashing. The build shown at PAX hinted at more gameplay than combat and fetch quests, with a range of possibilities open for areas further into the game. More details are bound to emerge as Bastion's release nears, but there is unfortunately still about a year until the full game sees the light of day. Until then, all there is to do is wait.
So what do you think? Did you get to play the PAX 10 games? Is my ranking totally wrong? Do I just suck at platformers, which is why Super Meat Boy ended up in third? Sound off in the comments!