The experience of PAX West is claustrophobic. People wander around and holler and generally do the things that people do, but they do it in such close quarters that you can’t turn around without knocking a Cloud Strife into a Tom Nook who comically performs a domino effect that knocks eight different generations of Power Ranger to the floor. However, being the Very Good Journalists that we are, we did our due diligence by walking around and looking at a million different games and generally compressing an infinite amount of information into our finite brainspaces. Here are the fifteen games Paste’s PAX team—Holly Green, Imran Khan and myself—thought were the most interesting at PAX West 2016, in alphabetical order.—Cameron Kunzelman
This minimalistic beat ‘em up was showcased and received funding through the NYU Game Incubator in 2015 and is the work of a single dev, 2016 IGF Student Finalist Gabe Cuzzillo. It was also shown at PAX this year without an official announcement from Devolver Digital, yet easily outshone every other game in the booth.
Featuring bright silhouettes inspired by the cut-outs of Saul Bass over a soundtrack of jazzy drum solos, Ape Out is a top-down brawler starring a gorilla on a rampage. Players navigate a maze-like level, ripping items from the environment and swinging their giant monkey fists to deliver brutal justice on the guards pursuing them and threatening to take them down. At the end of the level, the player’s path through the maze is shown on the screen, bringing renewed motivation in tackling the challenge anew. (Some footage of the game can be seen in this mini-documentary.)
From the visuals to the audio to the controls, Ape Out is satisfying in its simplicity. The controls are easy to learn, the art style effective but not fussy, the music punchy yet unobtrusive. It sold me on premise but sealed the deal on presentation.
There is scant information about Ape Out available right now but with its first PAX West now behind it, expect more soon.—Holly Green
Battle Chef Brigade
I like my games with a huge dose of personality, and Battle Chef Brigade delivers. A side scrolling, combination match-3 and fighting game, players take on the role of Mina, a young woman aspiring to become a top battle chef.
Each battle is fought with the goal of making the dish with the highest number of points, and players must use the finest ingredients and solve as many puzzles as possible within the allotted battle time. Ingredients are gathered by killing enemies and collecting their remains, which are then put in a large pot for cooking. From there, the ingredients are turned into random puzzle pieces, which can be “stirred” and rearranged into matching sets of three. The more combinations made during a match, the higher the score of the resulting dish. Whimsical, with a basic but satisfying combat system (featuring spells and special skills, some of which can help you in the kitchen), Battle Chef Brigade is uncomplicated, with a great sense of humor. Battle Chef Brigade would make a great boyfriend.
Successfully funded through Kickstarter in October of 2014, Trinket Studios reached several of their stretch goals, which include additional playable characters, each with their own specific combat and cooking strengths. Last month the studio was also able to announce Adult Swim Games as their publisher, however a release window has yet to be announced.—HG
The Church In The Darkness
Jim Jones and the horrifying mass murder/suicides of Jonestown is a collection of events that are hard to get over when you learn about them. It’s a very human story of believers, betrayal and authoritarian control that is hard to shake, and the scale of it makes it so much worse. It’s very easy to get those kinds of events wrong by turning them into exploitation or by parodying the very real assemblage of people, places and ideas that make events like Jonestown happen. The Church In The Darkness seems to be taking that grand cluster of ideas and putting them in infinite remix with each other, telling different kinds of stories with different kinds of outcomes from the generic historical information we know about events like Jonestown. The game seems to be striking the correct mix of ideas and mechanics while not exploiting the real tragedies that share the same ideological core, and I’m interested to see what comes out the other side in the end.—Cameron Kunzelman
I had no idea what Clustertruck was before being encouraged to pick up the controller and, to some extent, I wonder if that was for the best. The initial moment of confusion, then panic, then immediate acceptance as I played will be extremely hard to ever replicate. The game immediately thrusts you into its SuperhotmeetsMirror’s Edge mad world without giving you time to understand. Clustertruck is the logical extreme of “The Floor is Lava” with trucks and you absolutely need to give it a try to understand.—Imran Khan
Earthlock: Festival of Magic
Look, here’s the deal: this game has a small pig rabbit who is, as far as I can tell, a playable character that can kick ass all over a fantasy world that’s equal parts ‘90s JRPG and contemporary beautiful animated experience. There’s tactical battling (in the sense that party members pair up to perform better attacks), and there are numbers that go up and down based on how hard you wail on your enemies. It seems refreshingly no-nonsense in a world where that genre of role-playing game has either been flattened out into an action experience (the Bethesda model) or made so complicated that I can’t really make my way into it (the Tales of … series). Earthlock seems like it strikes a lot of balances for helping you into the game, and that’s something I find really refreshing in the world of enthusiast gaming.—CK
Gears of War 4
I have a special place in my heart for Gears of War that I have been unable to articulate for years. Something about the way the game aims and moves, the way the enemies react (or don’t) to your attacks, all gels together so well. I thought I only needed one second to touch Gears of War 4 to know if it feels like a real sequel or something entirely alien, only to discover that I still do not know for sure. It feels like a lost Gears game, somehow steeped in all the virtues of its predecessors while doing nothing to advance itself forward like the two sequels before it did. Despite my excitement, I am worried. That worry, however, still did nothing to stymie the fun I had playing the game on the floor as I slowly recalled what it was like to love Gears of War in the first place.—IK
Just Shapes and Beats
With a TV screen jammed uncomfortably into a tight corner on the Indie Megabooth show floor, you’d think the demo station for this game would go unnoticed by PAX attendees. But you’d be wrong. Like the Pied Piper of PAX West, the soundtrack of Just Shapes and Beats assembled a tight crowd five-deep and ten-wide of folks eager to get their hand on the game. And what a game it is.
Just Shapes and Beats is the very definition of the term “orchestrated chaos”. It’s objective is simply to not hit anything. It sounds easy, but in practice it’s among the more difficult games I’ve played. As the name suggests, the game consists largely of shapes and beats; the player is one of up to four polygons hurtling through space, dodging and ducking the many on-screen elements illustrating the music. Each moment is well-choreographed and perfectly timed to audio cues. The effect is not unlike playing through a music video.
Originally conceived during a 48 hour game jam, the fully realized version of Just Shapes and Beats is the brainchild of the three-person Quebec City based team Berzerk Studio. The soundtrack is an open collaborative effort featuring many artists. As a “music game”, it will go down in the halls of fame right alongside Bit Trip Runner, Super Hexagon, OlliOlli and Hotline Miami. Like Super Hexagon and Bit Trip Runner, the fun is in the game’s intense demand for quick reflexes combined with an almost hypnotically upbeat soundtrack, each small successful maneuver evoking a huge sense of triumph. It is also the only game I’ve ever deliberately stood in line for at PAX and I got a very stiff neck in the process. I have no regrets.—HG
Party Hard Tycoon
It’s no secret that I love being a tycoon of various cities, theme parks and golf courses, and this is a game that says it can finally let me complete my one last desire: party planner. There’s nothing I want more in life than to exist as the disembodied eye of God that silently manages the experiences that people have in various party environments. Thankfully my screams into the void that life has thrown me into have become answered with the creation of Party Hard Tycoon. It seems like the perfect level of simulation and weird party spyware, and I’m excited to play it when it comes out.—CK
Supergiant Games’ tendency to reinvent themselves with every new game still catches me by surprise now and then. While previous titles Bastion and Transistor were different takes on action RPGs, Pyre is essentially a sports game’s story mode. The gameplay in Pyre is merely football with auras and magic, but the main point of running the ball to a goal stays fundamentally concrete. Between matches, you’re given character scenes, dialogue, choices of how to plan out your day or interact with other characters, and truly beautiful art. It remains to be seen how long Pyre can hold my attention, but the game certainly grabbed it with both hands.—IK
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero
I was a big fan of WayForward’s previous Shantae game, Pirate’s Curse, so I have been anticipating its Kickstarted sequel with something resembling extreme impatience. Half-Genie Hero seems to limit emphasis on exploration in favor of a more arcade-like experience, moving at a faster speed than I was initially accustomed to. The demo ended with a rather simple boss fight, but it was such a visual treat that I deliberately delayed defeating the boss just to enjoy its animation a little longer.—IK
I’ve heard of Stonehearth a few times over the past little while. It’s a little Minecraft and a little Dwarf Fortress and it looks to be so complicated that stepping into it without being well-armed with a wiki might be a pinnacle mistake in one’s life. What really sold me on this game was how excited the person who approached me was to tell me about the game’s systems and new developments. Her name was Morgan the Intern (“The Intern” being an appended title such as “Baron” or “Destroyer of Worlds”), and she explained some of the decision making processes the development team goes through, talked about implementing a new class, and generally just gave a really great, personal account of what the game meant to her and the team at large. It was a pitch that wasn’t a pitch, and in the Great Nihilism of the show floor, it was something that really stuck with me. So I’m going to play Stonehearth now.—CK
Somewhere after 1998, I fell off Tekken’s volcano-shaped wagon, engaging with it only occasionally ever since. I convinced myself to give Tekken 7 a try based only on Street Fighter’s Akuma and found myself repeatedly coming back to the booth. It is hard to understate how impressive the game looks, with strong character models married to a fantastic background set. The addition of Rage Attacks, Tekken 7’s take on ultra moves, finally lets me feel like I can reverse a match going badly. Combine that with the game’s sense of speed and momentum and I came away surprised by how natural Tekken 7 feels.—IK
Through the Woods
The debut project of five-person Norwegian development studio Antagonist, Through the Woods is an exploration horror title set in the western woods of Norway. As a PAX attendee said to me during the demo, “It’s like Skyrim but also horror”. A more apt description I could not write. Skyrim, which famously lifted most of its lore and aesthetic from traditional Norwegian culture, did a fair job at recreating the woods of Norway. This is an area where Through the Woods also excels. However, Through the Woods also eschews combat in favor of stealth and avoidance, as players take on the role of a young mother investigating and emotionally processing the loss of her young son.
The story of the boy’s disappearance is retold through audio as the player explores their surroundings. Gameplay consists mostly of creeping through potentially haunted locations, avoiding the monsters said to be lurking nearby. The woods are filled with creatures from Norwegian folklore, and running or hiding is the only means to survive.
Admittedly, this game appeals to me because of my Norwegian heritage and my love of exploration and horror games. Thus I was pretty disappointed that I did not encounter any of the monsters during the demo. However, as I made my way through the game’s mongrel tufts of brush, abandoned villages, and glowing monoliths, the mere thought that I might was dramatic tension enough. The audio is used in just the right locations and just the right time to make the player always feel as though something is following them.
There’s no release window available yet for Through the Woods, however in a recent post in the updates section of their successful Kickstarter campaign, they mentioned that the game is now nearly complete.—HG
Unlike Just Shapes and Beats, the appeal and intensity of Tumbleseed is in the careful, methodic way each obstacle is approached. A modern take on gameplay first introduced in the arcade game Ice Cold Beer, the objective of this rogue-like is to meticulously navigate a single seed up a series of vine-infested mountain paths, guiding it through the many challenges along the way. The seed is balanced on a single horizontal bar, the ends of which are shifted up or down to affect the bar’s level, and, thus, the trajectory of the seed’s movements. There are holes, enemies, environmental traps and other hazards that the player must carefully roll the seed around or through, and along the way they can collect four different ability suits, swapping them out during gameplay to adapt to the demands of that particular level.
As each level is procedurally generated, every attempt at progressing through the mountain’s many biomes is fresh and unfamiliar. It requires enormous concentration, light fingers, and quick response times—but it’s lots of fun. It’s also not too hard on the eyes, or ears for that matter—both the art style, reminiscent of the charming picture-book sensibilities of Night In The Woods, and the music, by indie game composer Joel Corelitz, are icing on the cake. Expect this one on PlayStation 4 and PC sometime early next year.—HG
YIIK: A Postmodern RPG
I honestly have no idea what’s postmodern about this beautifully colored roleplaying experience, but I’ve never been one to let years of toiling study about the vagaries of theoretical movements from the latter half of the 20th century get in the way of my enjoyment of a solid game. I like games that want to stretch in some way, and this game seems to be doing everything that it can to take the formats of games like the Persona series or Earthbound and put them into new contexts. I’m all about contemporary hip people getting in raucous fights to determine the fate of the world. Plus the protagonist has a cute little beard! A+.—CK
Holly Green is a reporter, editor, and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gameranx, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.
Imran Khan is a San Francisco-based writer that tweets @imranzomg.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.