Whether I was balancing a laptop on my knees behind a demo display, or just throwing elbows in the wall-to-wall traffic jams of the Megabooth, PAX West was once again all about the indies. This year I spent time with a cute beat ‘em up brawler, a narrative-driven horticulture game, a fast paced restaurant sim, and a German point-and-click that takes 400 days to complete—the demo for which was the only time I’ve ever had a game translated to me in real time. And whether I was crying over the long distance romance of a puzzle platformer or trembling at the feet of a Junji Ito-inspired turn-based occultic horror game, I came away energized by the innovation on display. Here’s the best of what I played at PAX West 2019.
Creature in the Well
The satisfying ping of a pinball volley and that thrill of the ricochet is fully on display in Creature in the Well, and I am hooked on it. In this hack and slash dungeon crawler, the hero’s sword is used to charge up and launch orbs of light that gather energy as they are bounced and reflected off of nearby bumpers. Accumulated energy is used to open up doors into new areas, and new weapons contribute to the power and efficiency of your attacks. My favorite part is how the sword can be used to direct the line of fire as you knock out environmental hazards, which adds a bit of precision and skill to the typically unpredictable nature of pinball games. Of all the games I played at PAX, this one was absolutely the most fun.
As I wrote recently in a longer essay about my time with The Longing it’s impressive for its sheer ambition and commitment to a theme. Based upon a German legend, that of an old king slumbering in a mountain before he one day rises again to restore the country to its ancient greatness, it takes place in the labyrinth of cave passages, ruins, and catacombs that surround his throne. His loyal shade must wait out the full 400 days before the king awakens, and how he spends his time is up to you. But spend the time you must. The icing on the cake is the game’s superb art style, evoking the pen and ink illustrations of history and folklore books from the 1800s. It suits the game’s setting and subject matter well, supplementing its roots in Germanic legend. As I anticipate this beautifully bizarre release in the months to come, I’ll consider it practice for the real thing.
Cook, Serve, Delicious!! 3
I’ve been pretty obsessed with Cook, Serve, Delicious!! 2 over the past several weeks, and the demo for the upcoming Cook, Serve, Delicious!! 3 did not disappoint. At its heart the gameplay is largely the same; players prepare foods through a series of steps and actions not unlike the actual cooking process in real life, but performed through extremely quick keyboard-based commands. The new art style, which is a bit more ornate than the layout of its predecessor, had me worried that I would be more distracted and less able to quickly respond to the constant and demanding hum of food orders, but it was actually both visually stimulating and easy to parse. The best news? NO MORE CHORES! That’s right, no more balancing bathroom breaks and setting rat traps with your orders. These changes, though incremental, are a welcome polish on an already great game. As the series continues to refine itself with each installment, I expect its popularity, despite the game’s difficulty, will only grow.
A Fold Apart
When picking “best games of the show”, a good rule of thumb is, “go with the one that makes you cry”. A Fold Apart is a puzzle game that tells the story of a couple in a long-distance relationship and their efforts to stay connected. The demo revealed platformer-like gameplay, where the player folds or flips the page to bridge the gap or reach new areas as they try to reach the one they love. Genders can be chosen for both partners at the start of the game, and despite the light amount of actual dialogue or text, its themes of longing and loneliness are very touching. I walked away from this one with a tissue clutched firmly in each hand.
World of Horror
This game is so unbelievably sick it almost defies description. A lot of the appeal of World of Horror is in its vintage trappings: the old school PC graphics, the dated user interface, the labored combat sequences, and aging inventory conventions. As far as the horror bits go, it superbly showcases a collection of stories that are classic in their sensibilities but contemporary in their ability to scare the pants off you. It is continually refreshing to play this game and realize that there’s still something in this world that can frighten me; World of Horror is unafraid to indulge its occultic flourishes while following a familiar narrative format. While the demos I’ve played so far conflict in terms of establishing the core of its gameplay (this one didn’t feature the summoning circle for example), I can’t wait to see the bigger picture once the full game releases.
Super Crush KO
Playing Super Crush KO feels like an injection of pure serotonin. The game’s blend of brawler/beat ‘em up and run and gun seamlessly dips between the two by combining swift uppercuts, slick air pops, intuitively executed combos, and non-stop gunfire with a fluidity that does its fighting game roots justice. Personally, I loved pausing in mid-air and raining down bullets on my enemies; it felt like a bit of slow motion magic that made combat momentarily Matrix-like. With a love for Sailor Moon worn openly on its sleeve and an aesthetic best described as “pastel hoodie gay”, Super Crush KO had me at hello.
Continuing in the trend of “games that easily could be a children’s film,” SpiritFarer exhibits a winning combination of heart and magical whimsy. Set aboard a ferry for the deceased, the game is equal parts puzzle-adventure and management sim. Rooms can be built, a garden grown, and adventures embarked upon as the ferrymaster Stella and her merry band travel the world and learn how to self sustain through mining, farming, cooking, fishing and crafting. Along the way, Stella also cares for the spirits of the dead, fulfilling their final wishes before saying goodbye. With a direct but life-affirming approach to the topic of death, the game’s optimistic vulnerability is as wholesome as its charismatic and upbeat characters. I enjoyed what fishing, planting and cooking I was able to do during the demo, but even more so the pleasant day-to-day of the ship’s management. It’ll be interesting to see how well the game’s assorted fetch quests and build missions (one spirit tasked me with crafting a special room on-board) will balance with the narrative elements. But for the moment, I am enchanted.
The PAX West demo for Mutazione was illuminating in that it revealed a lot more of its dialogue-based gameplay. Set in a post-disaster village where a young woman has come home to take care of her grandfather, the game explores the developing relationships between Kai and her neighbors as she tends to the seven abandoned gardens scattered across town.
In the previous time I spent with the game, I collected seeds, found the perfect conditions and space to plant them in, and then used different songs and interludes to encourage their growth. This time, however, I also discovered that each specimen has its own resonance and melody, which (once fully grown) can be played back in harmony, like a little succulent choir. I love almost any game with an element of gardening, and while the system in Mutazione isn’t particularly complex, it’s still soothing and rewarding. I don’t fully understand where this game is headed yet, but with an eclectic paper cut-out aesthetic and the warm small-town feel of Night in the Woods, it’s on my permanent radar.
With Burly Men at Sea, developers Brain&Brain exhibited a talent for narrative innovation and visual minimalism that has extended to their latest effort, Wooden Nickel. Delivered entirely through the format of an Old West newspaper, the player sifts through each story and watches them play out in the dailies, the headlines and animations soothing in their signature silhouette simplicity. While the demos for this game, as with Burly Men at Sea, have limited space and opportunity to showcase its full potential (each tale unfolds over several days), the slices it offers so far are promising. I look forward to the quiet afternoon I eventually spend with this game.
LUNA The Shadow Dust
Amid LUNA The Shadow Dust’s amiable art style and exquisite, haunting soundtrack is a simplicity that makes its gameplay as intuitive as it is charming. This animated point and click game is completely wordless, with the puzzle of each panel delivered solely through visual cues. As the boy and his companion work their way through an ancient tower at the edge of the world, they must work out each obstacle by relying on one another’s unique strengths. Think Machinarium with soft, storybook visuals. In one room, I was only able to pass through by viewing a sequence of murals in a specific pattern; in another, I had to create a path to the ceiling so my little friend could climb through a hole and release a trigger on the other side. The puzzle solving symbiosis often relies on the play between shadow and light but will also require the player’s interpretation of the game’s unfamiliar imagery and symbolism. It is strange, but beautiful, and I suspect will have strong cross-generational appeal.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.