Another year, another PAX East. While many of the larger publishers have pulled out of conventions altogether in light of the pandemic and shifting priorities, PAX remains a hub for discovering troves of small-scale experiences. PAX East 2023 embodied this, and after braving the gamer hordes, we’ve come up with a list of our favorites of the show. We saw niche mash-ups, retro-throwbacks, experimental art games, fascinating horror titles, lots of roguelikes, and more than a few deck builders. As always, it was a blast to chat with developers about their projects, showcasing the immeasurable effort and passion that goes into any creative endeavor. Here are the games that most stood out to us.
Sometimes a work intersects with your interests in a way that feels like it was directly plucked from your gray matter. At least for me, Demonschool perfectly fits this description: A vibrant tactics RPG heavily influenced by the aesthetics of ’70s Italian horror films like Suspiria and the brain-scratching strategic precision of Into the Breach. As characters slay hellspawn, they leave geysers of bright red blood in their wake, the harsh crimsons and purples of the art directly quoting Giallo cinema’s kaleidoscopic colors. Its mechanics also take influence from a specific source, and from the small demo I played, there is a sleekness to the tactics gameplay. For instance, enemy strikes are telegraphed a turn before they hit, there is no random chance involved in the likelihood of blows connecting, and health and damage are shown in small units that make it easy to calculate outcomes. Its most novel inclusion is that your attacks and movement are combined into a single action, like in chess. This creates entertaining puzzles where you attempt to maneuver through swarms of enemies while making the best use of your party members’ unique strengths, like healing, area of effect damage, or buffs, to set up combos triggered by coordinating maneuvers. It all makes for a fascinating medley of cerebral gameplay and stylish visuals. I also enjoyed the glimpses I saw of its characters and writing, including its hilariously violent heroine, which bodes well for its overarching mystery narrative and social elements. – Elijah Gonzalez
Slay the Princess
Slay the Princess captivated basically everyone who played it, including myself. It was basically impossible to avoid the game anytime I was on or off the floor, making it a must-see at PAX. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure game with a striking hand-drawn art style reminiscent of gothic monochrome comics and the tone of The Stanley Parable. The conceit is simple, you have to kill a princess being kept in a cabin cellar in order to save the world from destruction. You enter the cabin, grab a knife, go down into the cellar and interact with her. It’s everything else around this premise that really turns the gears in my head. The narrator implores you to press on with your mission, but as you get to the princess, the entire story unravels. She fights back, not just against you but against the narrator and her perceived fate. As I tried to kill her, completing my mission, she fought back and ripped the chain holding her to the wall out of its socket, prompting me to reconsider and run back outside. Her voice transformed and she menacingly tried to break down the door before finally catching up with me, causing my body to slowly fail before I died.
And then it looped back around. I was suddenly alive again and the narrator treated the world and story as if nothing had changed, yet everything had. Another voice popped into my head and a mirror now adorned one of the cabin walls, even though the narrator claimed no such thing existed. Ghosts with blinking eyes stared at me just outside the windows and the basement transformed into a void. More importantly, the princess was nowhere to be seen. While I’m hesitant to give away how my demo ended, just know that this was just one of countless permutations that players could embark upon which bent reality and truths to tell a story I’m now utterly fascinated to unravel. Every decision, from going to the cabin in the first place to grabbing the knife, as well as the conversations you have with the narrator and princess can apparently send this story careening in wildly different directions, which players are likely going to be equally delighted and horrified to discover. – Moises Taveras
Working in a similar space to other games that evoke the wonder and mystery that accompanied picking up a controller for the first time, Animal Well is an atmospheric adventure platformer in which you control a little orb with eyes as they navigate a colorful subterranean labyrinth. While there are plenty of 2D titles about exploring mysterious spaces, this one de-emphasizes combat, instead forcing the player to piece together cryptic puzzles to proceed. Despite an absence of dialogue or explicit tutorialization, I could intuit where to go from my surroundings, spelunking through caves and unraveling environmental challenges to creep further into the world’s corners. Its presentation is striking, the iridescent pixel art and reverb of its score establishing a dreamy tone. There is both beauty and danger in these ruins, sometimes all at once, as confirmed by its screens full of ghostly presences amidst scenic waterfalls. Between its eye-catching backdrops and entrancing ambiance, I’m eager to uncover more of Animal Well’s secrets. – Elijah Gonzalez
In recent years, I’ve discovered a love for Metroid-like titles that has opened me up to some of the best games I’ve ever played. So naturally, when I laid eyes on Moonlight Pulse, I knew I needed to try it and I’m so glad I did. Featuring a rotating cast of adorably cool animal protagonists seemingly straight out of a Sonic the Hedgehog title, Moonlight Pulse follows the efforts of Silex, a badger and “curative agent’ who protects the living world of Aorasque from parasites. Along the way, he meets companions like Laguna and Charlotte, who have different play styles that round each other out i.e Laguna’s ranged water attack makes up for distances and elements that Silex’s close-quarters claws can’t account for. All the while, the parasites you’re destroying clear up blockages in the world, including an actual vein that flows through large swaths of the map and functions as an in-world fast travel you can actually swim in. That’s the thing about Moonlight Pulse, it’s got heart.
When characters are close to dying, they’ll automatically be swapped out before their HP hits zero. But it isn’t just a swap, it’s a tackle, followed by dialogue emphasizing that the weakened character watch out or take better care next time. It’s that Silex could’ve been written like an edgy cool guy hero, but is instead a caring member of his community with the ability to step up and save the environment. Instead of just traveling to checkpoints on a map, you float through the veins that connect the world, not unlike the stagway stations of my favorite game, Hollow Knight. In a genre that’s been done to death, it hinders more than it helps to play the hits over again. Make it your own, like Moonlight Pulse does. Between the cool character art and the fluidity with which Moonlight Pulse nails big and small things, from character movement to smooth transitions from a death screen, it’s just clear that the developer is firing on multiple cylinders, leaving me excited to play the full thing when it comes out in 2024. -Moises Taveras
While there is no shortage of indie retro platformers, Gravity Circuit proves that if a premise is executed well enough, it doesn’t really matter how much competition there is. First and foremost, the platforming here is precise, with slides, dashes, wall jumps, and a grappling hook defined by lightning-fast movement. However, what makes it stand out is how almost every action can be instantly canceled into something else, making room for customizable fighting game-inspired movesets that let you combo foes into oblivion. While battling the demo’s boss, I lunged forward with a special punch that sent them spinning through the air and then chained this into an aerial grab as they rebounded off the wall, channeling my inner Zangief with a devastating spinning piledriver. At another point, I defeated a robotic foe with my grappling hook, pulled in their metallic husk, and then hucked this lifeless corpse at their distant friend. There is a great deal of freedom in how you can link these techniques together, and when paired with its brisk movement and abundance of powers, it seems to be mixing some of the complexities of modern games with old-school sensibilities. And did I mention it feels really, really good to play? Because it does. – Elijah Gonzalez
Friends vs Friends
Since the dawn of time, we’ve engaged in friendly competition with our friends. As far back as I can trace, I’ve especially been a sucker for this tradition. Whether it was Yu-Gi-Oh at elementary school lunches or 1v1s on Dust in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 throughout middle school, I’ve long extolled the values of fighting your friends. Friends vs Friends then, as you might imagine, is exactly the game for me, since it’s strangely a mixture of both of those previous battlegrounds. Both a deck builder and a first-person shooter, Friends vs Friends pit me against a friend in cartoonish, fast-paced head-to-head combat where our skills and loadouts were determined by the character we picked and the random cards that were pulled from our decks at the beginning of the rounds. The cast is full of anthropomorphized animals (I’m almost positive I played as an alligator with a “Trans Rights” shirt) the skill cards you can pull are delectably fun to mess around with. Every game ended in dastardly mischievousness, like me appearing invisible until I blasted my frenemy in the head with a surprise shotgun blast, or them disabling my ability to jump off the tracks of a subway station as a train sped my way and promptly flattened me.
Multiplayer games are in a weird space right now, where most of them feel the obligation to become a service and fixture in your life. I feel like this has really detracted from the core of what’s always drawn me to multiplayer games: Shenanigans with friends. Why be so intricate and so infinite when you can focus on this core feeling that makes me want to load up a game with a party of friends, some drinks in hand, and shoot the shit for hours? Friends vs Friends feels simultaneously new and inventive, yet also like a brilliant throwback to hacked private lobbies. The full release will include 2v2, and the idea of four characters unleashing randomized hell on each other just sounds like a great excuse to get a group together every week, kick back and drink in the vibe of games that feel lost to us these days. If Friends vs Friends is perhaps any indication, maybe they aren’t totally gone. -Moises Taveras
Although I don’t generally associate whimsical art games with FromSoftware-inspired fights to the death, Strayed Lights seems to be finding success in combining these disparate modes. We follow an ethereal being as they set out on a wordless journey, forcing players to use music and visuals to interpret events. Like many modern action titles, battles here are primarily based around parrying, creating rhythmic exchanges with opponents. However, there is also an extra wrinkle; to damage foes while parrying, you must switch the color of your character between blue and red to match them (like in Ikaruga). There are also special moves, a somewhat piddly attack button, and a dodge for unblockable strikes. Parrying feels responsive thanks to its generous timing window, which is good because having to also switch colors creates an additional layer of challenge. Matching the cadence of your foes’ swings while seamlessly changing colors to match theirs creates delightfully frantic exchanges, and between the imposing scale of your enemies and crescendos of Austin Wintory’s score, these battles feel appropriately climactic. Though I’m curious if the minimalist backdrops will offer enough aesthetic variety throughout, and it will be interesting to see if Strayed Lights can build towards the emotional swells implied by its wordless storytelling, at the very least, its confrontations feel frenetic so far. – Elijah Gonzalez
Plenty of works have capitalized on fears associated with the woods, and partially thanks to the popularity of Twin Peaks, the pines of the Pacific Northwest cast a particularly ominous shadow. Pacific Drive’s rendition of the region hums with supernatural forbearance, its forests populated by strange floating beings which mostly ignore but sometimes attempt to ensnare you with their tendrils. Here you must drive an increasingly smashed-up car through rocky paths and abandoned roads as you head deeper into the Olympic Exclusion Zone. In addition to its frightening sights, Pacific Drive is a roguelike, adding an extra sense of peril to the proceedings. Your car is modeled in relatively fine detail; individual parts can sustain damage, doors need to be individually opened and closed, keys need to be placed in the ignition, and the stick needs to be manually shifted between drive and park. The meticulousness with which your vehicle is rendered ties in with how trips through backroads can be deadly. At one point, while gunning it to the extraction point, I tried to squeeze through two stone columns rising from the earth and heard a visceral crunch as both my doors were ripped off their hinges. As I looked at the car’s holographic dashboard, I saw I had taken substantial damage to almost every other part left, leaving me on a razor’s edge for the rest of the playthrough. These elements added a compelling tension, which when paired with its already effective tone, made for a white-knuckled trip. While roguelikes often live or die by how satisfying and varied runs are, my demo with Pacific Drive impressed thanks to its marriage of supernatural thrills and its detail-intensive driving experience. – Elijah Gonzalez
Hell of an Office
Do you remember how everyone fell head over heels in love with Neon White last year? Well, I suspect some of that crowd may also find lots to love in Hell of an Office this year. It’s missing the characters that either delighted or made you cringe (or perhaps even both), but Hell of an Office makes up for that with speed. I’m talking Doom levels of speed; This game is all killer, no filler. Boasting a premise that places players in the shoes of Hell’s newest office worker, Hell of an Office cuts right to the point, handing you a stapler for a weapon and movement tech like dashes and rocket jumps to navigate levels at breakneck paces. Here’s the best endorsement I can give you though: I beat the entirety of the early access release on the PAX showfloor entirely by accident, just because I was enthralled by the movement. If there’s more to come down the line—and there absolutely is—I’ll be there to blast my way out of Hell once and for all. -Moises Taveras
Sucker for Love: Date to Die For
Between its homages to the rounded edges and color palettes of ‘90s anime, as well as the cursed tomes and haunted villages of weird fiction, Sucker for Love: Date to Die For wears its inspirations on its sleeve. However, more than simply regurgitating its influences, my time with this part horror, part romance, part adventure game was one of my highlights of the show. This came in large part because although it bears resemblance to relatively cynical romance/horror fake-out titles, by contrast, the writing here is exceedingly earnest, depicting the burgeoning feelings between the ace protagonist Stardust, and her crush, an all-powerful fertility goddess. As I crept through the ominous halls of Stardust’s old home, the prospect of running into cultists lingered in the back of my mind, and I was drawn in by the contrast between the lively art style and oppressive mood. I’ll admit that I’m a mark for a lot of what’s on display here: the old-school anime aesthetic, the sincerity of its dialogue, and the idea of being trapped in a cursed Eldritch village full of freaky little guys. But I think its strengths, like its cohesive look and effective genre pastiche, could make Sucker for Love: Date to Die For an indie horror hit. If there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that I need to check out the preceding title in the series as soon as possible to help ease the wait for its follow-up. – Elijah Gonzalez
Mina the Hollower
After nearly a decade of Shovel Knight, Yacht Club Games is finally onto something new with Mina the Hollower. It’s a top-down action-adventure title that seems to be accomplishing something similar to the studio’s previous work by adapting an older style of experience with modern design approaches. You play as Mina, a little mouse who must navigate a semi-open world as she battles ghouls, werewolves, and plenty of other gothic horror staples. The core mechanics here feel rewarding, and I got a read on enemy attack patterns as I slung my chain whip, dodged by burrowing underground, and threw consumable weapons at my foes. One of its most interesting elements is that to be able to use your healing flasks, you must first hit enemies to build yellow health, which can then be converted once you take a sip. This creates a constant risk-reward as you weigh using a precious healing item right now versus going for a little bit more recovery through combat. Screens are frequently full of relentless enemies, making it necessary to play carefully, and its platforming challenges made good use of its burrowing mechanics that force you to weave above and under obstacles. In addition to multiple weapons that can be swapped out at checkpoints, RPG mechanics, cryptic side quests, and hidden secrets, there seems to be a lot of meat on the bone. From what I’ve seen so far, Mina Hollower met my high expectations as the follow-up to one of the standout retro indies in recent memory. – Elijah Gonzalez
Ok, listen, I know there are already a dizzying number of roguelike deck builders, but how many of them feature a himbo with a berry for a head or an adorable garbage-eating bison? Wildfrost’s most immediately noticeable aspect is its incredibly cute art style that comes to life in its colorful characters and expressive illustrations. While some genre aficionados may think this element doesn’t sound particularly crucial compared to core gameplay, the reality is that many of us got into TCGs in the first place because we thought the art on some card looked particularly cool, so this emphasis feels fitting. And beyond its charming aesthetic, there also seems to be a great deal of depth to its deck-building. In a short time, I could already see plenty of synergies between abilities and ways to build around status effects. Tough decisions, like which leader to pick, dramatically impacted the trajectory of my run, meaning the deck-building seems to have a great deal of consequence. Additionally, compelling tactical problems came into view. There are an abundance of decisions at any given time, as you can choose to redraw for the cost of an action, voluntarily shuffle damaged cards back into your deck to heal them, move companions between lanes, and of course, play your cards. Enemies telegraph which turn they will attack, meaning it’s necessary to juggle the incoming onslaught of foes, delaying their turns and picking off weaklings to mitigate damage. Between its clever twists on the genre and beautiful look, I have a feeling Wildfrost will suck me back into the time-annihilating vortex that roguelike deck builders are known for, and I’m all for it. – Elijah Gonzalez
Defined by its paper-crafted look and calming atmosphere, Paper Trail is a puzzle game full of clever obstacles. It stars a young woman named Paige who is leaving home for the first time to attend university, and we help her navigate environments by folding the world to open up new paths. Its introductory areas were already full of brain-bending challenges that pushed my spatial awareness to its limits. Each screen is like a sheet of paper with a front and a backside, and you can fold that sheet diagonally or horizontally to create routes. While it’s a simple concept, there are many moving parts, like blocks that can be transported between the front and back of a page, multiple ways to bend the paper, and other twists that make for an effective cognitive workout. Between its smart design and cozy art style, Paper Trail seems like it could be easy to get lost in. – Elijah Gonzalez
Born of Bread
It’s incredibly hard to communicate charm and wit, especially in writing, on a crowded showfloor, but time and time again I heard that Born of Bread had it in spades. Curious to see what it was all about, I finally tracked down the game before the show ended and am happy to confess that Born of Bread is as cute and funny as everyone told me it was. Like the best bread, the game was immediately warm, wearing its earnestness on its sleeve for all to see. It felt like the best medicine to combat the bad in the world. Born of Bread is a game in the vein of Paper Mario, with highly interactive environments chock full of quirky characters and puzzles and a turn-based combat system predicated on timed button presses. The main character Loaf is in fact a child born of bread and magical interference, and becomes the unwitting protagonist of this story literally moments after coming into this world with nothing but a ladle to fend off the forces of evil. Though I can’t speak to the depth of its systems, as my demo was fairly short and restricted to the beginning of the game, I can say that it’s leads are all likable little weirdos, including your father, Papa Baker, who was not a father before baking you into this world despite his name. I don’t really go here, having only meaningfully experienced a Paper Mario title by watching someone else play through it, but I’ll be damned if picking up Born of Bread didn’t leave me wanting some more of its incredibly soft feel-good vibes. -Moises Taveras
Mineko’s Night Market
As much as I’ve enjoyed losing hundreds of hours to Animal Crossing and other social sims over the years, there is something appealing about the ones with a definitive end. While Mineko’s Night Market is working in this genre space, it’s also apparently quite story-driven, and you’ll build towards a conclusion as Mineko attempts to uncover the mysteries of her new island home. Her talks with the locals reveal quirky dialogue that got several chuckles out of me, and it seems this town is full of loveable weirdos. In general, there is a great deal of personality here, and I love the contrast between the soothing pastoral backdrops and its overarching narrative involving government conspiracies and inexplicable happenings. While I didn’t have enough time with the game to get a firm grasp on its social and resource-building elements, I saw a little bit of its crafting, collecting, and bartering, which seems to be in line with what you would expect from this type of experience. Only time will tell if these elements hold up, but its writing and visuals left a strong first impression that has me intrigued. – Elijah Gonzalez
Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.
Moises Taveras is the assistant games editor for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.