Keep your eye on these great indie games from PAX 2013

Whether or not you agree with the politics of the founders of the Penny Arcade Expo, there’s no arguing it’s a key tool for independent and smaller developers. PAX is the only mainstream, widely-known video game conference in the United States that’s also open to the public, and people come from all over to attend. Getting your game shown at PAX is a sure-fire ticket to a ton of exposure.

If you couldn’t make it to PAX this past weekend, don’t worry! I’ve got you covered. There were nearly 90 games in the Indie Megabooth this year, plus others scattered around the show floor. There’s no Dying Light or Titanfall on this list—everything on here comes from a small team, though a few (like Takedown) are working with well-established publishers.

With over a hundred games to cover, I’ve no doubt missed a few with this list. I don’t feel like I played enough Samurai Gunn to write something new about it, for example—though what I played was fantastic. I’ve also tried to stick to games you may not have heard of, in the hopes of sharing some indie sleeper hits. I’m looking forward to Hotline Miami 2 and Stanley Parable as much as anyone else, but hopefully you already know about those two games. Hopefully.

Apotheon

One look at Apotheon and you’ll immediately think, “Oh wow, that’s so obvious. I can’t believe nobody has done that before!” I’m of course referring to the art style, inspired by Ancient Greek pottery. It’s a brilliant choice, and helps raise this Metroidvania-type exploration game above the legions of others.

Apotheon looks gorgeous.

While I only got to play for a brief period of time, the full game takes place in a gigantic open-world version of Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek Gods. Presumably you’ll have to interact with them, though hopefully in a more nuanced way than the God of War games. Either way, Apotheon is easily the prettiest game I played at PAX.

Gravity Ghost

Gravity Ghost is one of those games where the parts are so much less than the fantastic, joyous whole. The core mechanic is simple and familiar: you have to propel a ghostly figure through space collecting stars, but orbiting planets keep pulling you off course.

Gravity Ghost is another feel-good indie game that—surprise!—looks beautiful.

The game excels at presentation, however. It’s one of those rare games where even when you screw up, you don’t really care because it’s all so gorgeous. Flying through space leaves a bright, looping trail of light in your wake, and everything glows with color.

And since it’s unfair to treat your eyes while ignoring your ears, the game also features music from FTL composer Ben Prunty.

Audiosurf 2

After almost six years there’s finally a sequel to Audiosurf, the fantastic music game where you fly your hovercraft on tracks procedurally generated from your own music. Explaining Audiosurf is kind of a lost cause, and at this point the game is so cheap you should probably just own a copy. Suffice it to say in the original game you chose a song from your music library and the game would then build a rollercoaster-type level by measuring the tempo and intensity of the song and generate the level accordingly. You scored points by collecting small blocks of light during the level, which were keyed to the beat of the song.

Just go play it.

Surf or DIE (to the beat of your music collection) in Audiosurf 2.

Anyway, Audiosurf 2 is looking fantastic. This time you control an actual surfer, and instead of scoring points for collecting blocks you’ll instead fly off jumps in the level created by sudden tempo changes. Once you’re up in the air you can use the mouse wheel and buttons to do all sorts of crazy flipping tricks. It’s stunning. The game is also prepped for extensive mod support, so expect more game modes from the community in the future.

Takedown: Red Sabre

We haven’t had a Rainbow Six game in a while now. This thought occurs to me as I was guided through Takedown, a tactical shooter very much in the vein of Rainbox Six—and with good reason, since Christian Allen, head of developer Serellan, used to make mods for that series before working on the Ghost Recon titles.

Playing cooperatively is the best way to enjoy Takedown. Every player chooses an infiltration point and is given free reign of a fully nonlinear environment. In our demo all four players started in the basement, but you could just as easily have all four on the roof or have two in each location sweeping opposite directions. It’s tense, even with three fellow squadmates, and extremely focused on realism.

Takedown: Red Sabre is shaping up to be an excellent tactical shooter in the vein of classic Rainbow Six games.

Case in point: “Wait, is there a way I can check our objective again?” says one of my teammates.

“You should’ve studied the briefing earlier," says a nearby developer. "This is real life, gentlemen."

It doesn’t matter—we all die thirty seconds later.

Neverending Nightmares

Matt Gilgenbach spent four years developing Retro/Grade, a rhythm-based shoot-em-up game. Then it came out to…nothing. No applause, no screaming Beatles-esque fans, no spell of Twitter acclaim. It existed at that odd confluence of great reviews, some critical buzz, but no real success.

Neverending Nightmares is one of the most disturbing indie games I've ever seen.

When Gilgenbach went back to make another game, he knew he needed something different—something people would notice. Something like Neverending Nightmares, his next project. In stark black, white, and red, playing through the game’s demo was oppressive and disturbing. Neverending Nightmares uses Gilgenbach’s OCD and clinical depression for inspiration; a number of the extremely graphic and disturbing images portrayed (such as one where the lead character pulls a vein out of his arm) are taken straight from intrusive thoughts he’s experienced. Terrifying and repulsive, yes, but also fascinating.

Contrast

Contrast is a puzzle platformer, and while that genre is a dime a thousand these days, the developers over at Compulsion Games have come up with a fantastic gimmick that makes Contrast stand out from the crowd.

As you might expect, the core conceit of Contrast deals with light and dark. While the main game is played in three dimensions, you can seamlessly jump into the walls at any moment and become your own shadow, using other shadows for two-dimensional platforming sections.

Leap into your own shadow to solve puzzles in Contrast.

At one point, for instance, I had to reach the top of a carousel—the game takes place in a burlesque-inspired world. In three dimensions it was impossible, but I noticed the carousel horses casting shadows on the walls. I transformed into two dimensions and used the horse shadows to climb higher, then leapt back into my full form and landed on top of the carousel.

In my demo alone I ran through the carousel, a seedy nightclub, and a pirate-themed funhouse. If it can keep the same level of quality, Contrast is possibly the most creative 3D platformer since Pyschonauts.

Barkley 2: Revenge of Cuchulainn

The sequel to Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Barkley 2 looks just as absurd and irreverent. The first game, a crazed Japanese RPG-style game about Charles Barkley—yes, the basketball player—and his travels through post-apocalyptic New York, is one of the best free titles in recent memory.

The sequel has gone legit, though. While the first game outright ripped sprites from classic games and mixed things together to create the game equivalent of a Girl Talk song, everything in the new game is built from scratch—presumably so the final product can actually be sold legally.

Barkley 2 looks ridiculous, but you need to go play Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden right now to understand why this sequel might be great.

That doesn’t mean developer Tales of Games has toned down the humor. You’ll play as cyborg Charles Barkley, complete with powder-blue mohawk, as you wander the open world of Necron 7. The game is also fairly ambitious, with the developers claiming the world changes over time without waiting for you, so you might miss out on some quests and gain access to others just because you spent an hour lost in the sewers.

Wasteland Kings

Developer Vlambeer makes some great games. So great, in fact, that they tend to get…stolen. Last year’s Ridiculous Fishing, this year’s Luftrausers—Vlambeer’s games get cloned before they’re even out to the public.

Well not anymore, apparently. While Luftrausers is still unreleased, Vlambeer is already hard at work on a new title called Wasteland Kings, and this time they’re putting it in the public eye from the very beginning: the game will launch for early access soon, and much of the development is being livestreamed.

Much of Wasteland Kings' development process has been public knowledge—an early prototype of the game was even entered in the Molyjam 2013 game jam.

That’s good, because I’m already having withdrawal. Wasteland Kings is an apocalyptic Western with roguelike elements. Some horrible nuclear tragedy apparently befell this world, forcing you to kill to survive. Select your weird mutant character of choice (I played as a triangle with a single, gigantic eye) and you’ll be dumped into the world with just a gun and a prayer. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and then you die.

Always Sometimes Monsters

Always Sometimes Monsters is a bit of a conundrum. It’s a game that claims choices matter, but it’s impossible to know how the extent of that statement when playing through a brief demo.

What’s interesting about Always Sometimes Monsters is the scale of the choices made. This isn’t your typical blockbuster game choice—you know, the “Save the world” or “Slaughter a puppy” type. Always Sometimes Monsters is about…life. As far as I can tell.

After the opening scenes, I took control of a literary agent hosting a party, trying to figure out who to fund next. I eventually chose a scruffy looking guy who promised we could toast with whiskey, but I could’ve just as easily chosen anyone else at the party—the blonde with her bottle of white wine, or the red-haired guy with his flask of brandy. Next I took control of the scruffy guy as he went to find his “partner”—gender-neutral for a reason, since when I walked outside I could choose from another twenty or so people as my love interest.

If you like tough choices, Always Sometimes Monsters is an indie game worth keeping an eye on.

If there are 20 options for both those decisions, we’re already talking 400 different ways the story could play out with just those two choices. 400. For two small choices right at the beginning of the game.

With something this modular, does any choice really matter? I guess we won’t really know until the full product comes out. Still, it’s an intriguing way to handle story in games and I’m curious how much depth is there.

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