Last weekend, Seattle hosted PAX West as it does every Labor Day weekend here in the States. While E3 is known for its big reveals and Gamescom for its absurd crowd sizes, PAX is typically thought of as the more indie-focused gaming expo. Not without plenty of major AAA titles too, the show once again lived up to its reputation as an indie haven and a place where lesser known titles can get their time in the spotlight. I saw plenty of games over the weekend and thought I'd compile some of my favorite indies and under the radar titles right here.
If you like the sound of any of them, be sure to subscribe to updates on their game pages here on site. Without further ado, here are eight standout titles you maybe haven't heard of but should keep an eye on starting now.
What it is: The Church in the Darkness is a top-down stealth-infiltration game where players must sneak into and around a cult much like Jonestown and extract their family member who has gone and joined it, for better or worse. The game changes each time you play, so you won't know whether the cult is a more benevolent alternative community for those seeking refuge from the perceived perils of the western world, or if they're really the type that will be prepared to drink the Kool-Aid and meet interlopers with swift violence a la Jim Jones himself.
What I liked: You may recall I demoed Church at PAX last year and really enjoyed what I played. This recent showing looks like it may be the last PAX for the game as it nears its PC alpha release (with full console versions to follow), and what I saw this time was a more robust world filled with side quests, more unforgiving enemies, and new ways to sneak around the cult of Freedom Town.
A woman I met early into my demo wasn't convinced her people were as dangerous as I said they were, but she was willing to change her mind with evidence. That opened up a side quest wherein I could find that evidence and get her on my side and she would then help me in my grand scheme to get my family the hell out of there. Context clues around the commune, like peaceful prayer or violent stonings, (in this year's demo, I saw the latter) tip off just how dangerous each iteration of the cult may be. Playing with that sort of morality is becoming a big part of the experience, as I consciously found myself wanting to sit atop the moral high ground with these cultists by not killing them, even as they gave chase with guns of their own at times. Combined with the ever-changing parts, it brings a great sense of replayability as who the good guys and bad guys are can really change each time — and sometimes it'll definitely be you.
What it is: Take some of the design of Left 4 Dead and a bit of the atmosphere of Stranger Things, and have it built by a team of developers who previously worked on stuff such as BioShock 2, and the end result is The Blackout Club. Four players work together to expose the weird happenings in their quiet town at night as it's regularly taken over by some really creepy sleepwalkers, or "Sleepers" as the kids call them, who all seem to worship a supernatural force called The Shape.
What I liked: I played about 30 minutes of the game with direction by one of the developers, Jordan Thomas, who directed BioShock 2, and I quickly learned it's not just those aforementioned properties lending inspiration to The Blackout Club. So too did my favorite horror movie of the past several decades, It Follows. Once Thomas told me that, the likeness became clear. The Shape is an unseen entity that is constantly searching for you, and the more times your team screws up and makes noise, the more likely it is to find you. Tip it off too much and eventually it's game over.
Each kid can be equipped with different tools and abilities you earn by leveling up, and then you get to use them on the impressively unsettling Sleepers, who walk around blindly, attracted to the noise you make, always whispering things like "I hear you." This sort of hushed environment brings a whole new take to four-player co-op, and though I played alone in my demo, I could see how interesting it'll be to coordinate silent strategies around town. Doing battle with these creepy foes was like a sleepover where the kids try to sneak a midnight snack without waking the sleeping adults, only the stakes were now much higher.
If Trials Packed a Punch, It Would Be Steel Rats
What it is: Steel Rats is a side-scrolling game where players control a biker gang as they move in a 2.5D plane taking out robots and staying upright. For those who like RedLynx's Trials series, there's a bit of shared DNA here, only the emphasis is more on combat and speedrunning and less on perfectly balancing your bike — though that's present too.
What I liked: The controls were a bit hard to get used to for a few minutes in my 20 minute session with the game, but once I got the hang of them and began dashing through levels, cutting through obstacles and robots indiscriminately, and perfectly nailing a few near-fatal stunts, the potential of Steel Rats came into view. Even with the Trials comparison, Steel Rats ultimately doesn't play much like anything else, which makes it very cool that an indie studio such as Tate Multimedia has carved out their own unique space on the crowded showfloor of PAX — and eventually digital storefronts.
As you go through the game, you unlock four bikers, each with their own stats and abilities, and you can swap among them on the fly with the click of the joystick. It was really intuitive and plays like a puzzle, as sometimes you'll need the weaponry of one gang member before you quickly swap to the fastest in your bunch to complete a hard stunt jump. Driving upside-down, racing infernos, and nailing 180s swiftly all made the last few minutes of the demo especially memorable.
The King's Bird Is a Speedrunner's Dream
What it is: Just arriving on Steam and coming to consoles next year, this indie mixes beautiful visuals with pinpoint mechanics. It's a 2D platformer where players glide, leap, and dash across levels full of danger and beauty in equal measure. A feeling of weightlessness can often take over, though not permanently, of course. That would be too easy.
What I liked: The King's Bird is a perfect fit for speedrunners who like to achieve perfection. While I waited for my demo, a line of mostly kids who came to PAX with their parents had been taking turns, and they were doing pretty well even as it looked quite tough. They'd all hit some walls and land in the areas covered in thorns and vines, but for the most part I was impressed and at first a little intimidated at how well these young kids performed. Thankfully, when it came to be my turn, I found the intuitive control scheme allowed me to look pretty good too.
The game is all momentum-based, and as long as you keep moving, there's little you can't do, but it takes a quick wit to pace your next move or two as you head right to the finish line. Diving down, catching air, and speeding back up felt excellent, and it has the feel of a game that will introduce mechanics bit by bit, constantly challenging you with new ways to play. The developers told me despite how it just released, it's already become a hit among speedrunners, though the studio has also been inspired by Celeste to implement better accessibility options into the game and allow for a lot of the mechanics to be tweaked, making it easier for those who want to take in the beauty of the game without the frustrations that may come with failure.
In Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics, Nazis and Lovecraftian Monsters Team Up, Unfortunately for You
What it is: Actung! Cthulhu Tactics is like XCOM, it's fair to say, but it has plenty going for it that makes it stand out too, not the least of which is its weird mashup world of Nazis and The Great Old Ones from Lovecraft's work. The game is based on a tabletop RPG of the same name and it basically imagines a world where the oft-discussed Nazi love affair with the occult led them to discover Lovecraft's finest cosmic horrors. Now it's up to an international alliance of soldiers and heroes to defeat them.
What I liked: I'd only begun to dip my toes into the tactical strategy-RPG pool a few years ago, but in that time I've come to really enjoy this previously ignored genre, and Achtung! finds what feels like a good balance of familiarity and innovation to welcome anyone who's looking for more games like XCOM. Most prominently, the way your heroes can go crazy from stress on the battlefield was appropriately Lovecraftian, and should you lose any characters to The Shroud, the game's fog of war system that masks enemies, they are consumed by the cosmic creatures and you must rescue them via side quests on subsequent missions. That makes the stakes very high as you need to manage not just their health, action points, and special abilities, but now their stress levels too.
I also liked the freedom to play how I wanted. As one mission had me sabotaging three enemy locations in close quarters, I was free to sprint down hallways and try to dash past enemies or play it slowly and clear each room. I didn't need to defeat all enemies in an area to advance. Once I had completed my main objective, the exit was available. Getting there wasn't easy, and I lost one soldier on the way. But thankfully one of my heroes, Singh, had tremendous movement abilities, and after clearing one room of everyone, Nazis and creatures alike, I was able to sprint past enemies with Singh while my other squadmates lent covering fire. With customization options galore, like new attachments and weapon loadouts, it seems apparent every playstyle is accounted for in this cosmic horror strategy game.
Fimbul Prepares for Ragnarok
What it is: A very late addition to my PAX lineup,Fimbul caught my eye in a press email just a day before the show. It's a Viking isometric hack and slash built around a core that comes from real Norse lore. The Danish studio Zaxis is making the game thanks to a government grant that aids developers in bringing their ideas to life, so long as the games they make perform some function as a nationally and historically enriching piece of media.
What I liked: The art style is what grabbed me in the email, and it looked really cool in person too. Given that the title comes from the long winter that precedes the Norse apocalypse, the game has a whole bunch of snow to run around in, but the white world was often offset by suits of armor, crucial torches or a massive, end-of-demo boss battle. In between levels, the cutscenes are told with comic book panels and the studio has teamed with a local comic book artist to bring the mythology to life with them. What was really unexpected, though, were the branching paths the story takes. You won't likely see the same story as some others who play it, and those decisions that shape your narrative play out sometimes immediately and sometimes over many hours in the game.
The coolest part of the demo was that, as was the case in real life, none of the weapons or shields I picked up would last me very long. That meant I'd have to constantly swap out for those left by fallen enemies or else I'd be next to fall. Weapon degradation is sometimes an annoyance, but in my time with Fimbul, I think it was the pace of it all that kept it interesting. I knew they would break soon, so I'd get in a few good hits, finish off a foe, and swap out for their items as they left this mortal coil.
Don't Be Fooled By the Visuals, Family Man is Basically Breaking Bad
What it is: Family Man is a blocky, low-poly, almost LEGO-like game where players take on the role of a guy who suddenly owes the wrong people a lot of money. While the world is colorful and bright, the gameplay and story are anything but. It's basically Breaking Bad and the developer was happy to make that comparison too. With an open-ended day-to-day schedule at the player's disposal, you are tasked with paying off your loans to the mob while managing your home life with your family and staying afloat with your bills and your personal wellbeing. It's like if Tom Nook started busting kneecaps when you got behind on your mortgage.
What I liked: The game really seemed to give me a lot of freedom to solve — or even ignore — my problems however I want. My son wanted to be tucked in every night. My wife needed me to do some house cleaning. I had bills to pay. And worst of all, I had mob bosses breathing down my neck. I could attend to those things with the best intentions, I could focus on some but not all, or I could admit defeat and go to bed. Odd jobs around town meant I could make a quick buck here or there, but as the game goes on you're met with constant and tougher moral decisions to make. How far would you go to protect yourself and your family? That's the premise of the game, and in classic Walter White fashion, it lets you go pretty far — becoming a career criminal if you so wish.
Being vegan, I wasn't comfortable working on a farm to milk a cow as my first money-making opportunity, but I imagine such a decision will seem like a simple one when the game later has me wondering whether or not to leave any witnesses when I rob a fast food restaurant. There was a lot to see in the game and I felt like a lot of it is still in the early stages too, like a demo doesn't exactly do it justice past the "hey, this is like Breaking Bad and that's cool" feeling. It was, after all, just revealed days before PAX kicked off. For now, I look at it like The Sims: You Owe The Mob Edition, and that's an unseen and exciting take on the life sim genre, and well worth following from here on.
What it is: I fell in love with Portia when I first played it at E3 this summer and considered it the Animal Crossing analog long missing from Xbox consoles. Playing it again at PAX, this time I got to see more of the crafting and combat elements that make it a lot like Minecraft too.
What I liked: So far, I like everything about My Time at Portia. It's ridiculously charming, from its surprisingly deep character creator to its vibrant palette of diverse townspeople to meet and greet, to its home management reminiscent of Nintendo's popular aforementioned franchise. I mostly kept things nice and cheery at E3, so I knew to justify taking more time out of my busy PAX schedule just to replay a game I'd seen months ago, I had to see a new side of Portia. I was led by one of Team17's brand managers to a few different areas in which I could engage in combat with some of the absurd, almost Pokemon-like animals about town. You can pretty much attack them whenever you want, and in the most cheerful way you can imagine, they'll fight back, and often pretty well too if you're greatly underleveled.
To gather the best resources for crafting, you'll need to complete different mines, which act as combat and platforming dungeons (again, still delightful). I foolishly tried to finish one using only my woodcutter's ax, which can be used as a weapon but lacks the quickness and efficiency of an actual combat sword. Needless to say, I was struck down swiftly by bubbly looking antagonists at the gates of the very first room of a multi-room mine. I don't think the combat will be the best part of the game. Personally, I like the more casual life-sim stuff much better, but it was cool to see that even when things do descend into chaos, it's all still sprinkled with the lighthearted charm that made me fall in love with this game back in June.
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