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Top 25 Things We Saw at PAX East 2014 (#5-1!)

5. The Double Fine/CAPY Booth

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There is no greater marriage of two companies at PAX than Double Fine and Capybara. The house that Tim Schaefer built gladly shares its space with the developers of Superbrothers: Swords & Sorcery, sending a definitive message that the gaming industry doesn’t always have to be about competition. Sometimes, it’s enough to simply admire another developer’s spirit and innovation. What makes this joint booth so appealing is the incredibly variety of amazing games at the player’s disposal; complete with comfy couches and an open, welcoming mood.

CAPY became the talk of the show, demoing their gorgeous new adventure game: Below. A procedurally generated rogue-like with a uniquely distant top-down perspective, Below has earned comparisons to Dark Souls and the Legend of Zelda. The game’s brutally difficult combat has become the highlight for many critics, but I’m particularly drawn to the permadeath feature that will lead to real consequences for in-game failure. Below has topped many “Best of PAX” lists and its aesthetic graces are undeniable; but unfortunately I was unable to play the game myself. But from afar, it was nothing short of astounding.

CAPY also delivered the long-awaited Super Time Force: a lightning-fast, time-bending action game in which reversing time leads to the spawning of a new on-screen character, who fights along older versions of themselves. It’s complicated to wrap your mind around, but absolutely perfect mechanically. Below drew a lot of eyeballs, but Super Time Force was the real fun at the core of CAPY’s booth.

Double Fine was also onboard with some juicy gaming goodness, revealing their second crowd-funded project Hack’n’Slash for the first time. Hack’n’Slash takes the tired dungeon crawling formula and adds a fresh and satirical point-of-view. The player can literally hack the game, revealing deep secrets and digital treasures. The booth’s final game was another “Double Fine Presents…” title called Last Life, a cyberpunk noir about a murdered detective who is brought back to life by 3D printing.

This isn’t the first time that Double Fine and CAPY have come together and I certainly hope it isn’t the last. There’s not a friendlier group of people on the show floor.       

4. D&D Next: Acquisitions, Inc.

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Most people wouldn’t considered Dungeons & Dragons a spectator sport, but the adventures of Jim Darkmagic, Benwin Bronzebottom, Omin Dran and their cycling group of interns have become the stuff of legend. This is the first time that Penny Arcade has brought Acquisitions, Inc to PAX East and it was joyous to see such a vibrant crowd laugh and cheer for a game of imagination and improvisation. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, “GM to the Stars” Chris Perkins weaved a tale of politics and intrigued…that was cut off rather abruptly by the need to prepare for the Omegathon finals. Regardless, the PA crew proved to be as hilariously creative as ever, riding atop a massive stone robot across the plains of the Forgotten Realms in search of some lost dragon eggs. You can see the broadcast here.

But being the nerd that I am, as great as the panel was, it was more important for me to see D&D Next in action. Not the playtest version, not a preview, but the rules as they will probably stand upon release. I’m sure there’s still some tweaking to do, but for the most part, this episode of Acquistions, Inc felt like a fully realized experience of D&D’s fifth incarnation.

Ultimately, Next doesn’t feel like a huge leap forward for the brand. But that’s a good thing. Wizards’ has been making a bold attempt to create the definitive version of this classic roleplaying game. The nuts and bolts of the mechanics are blatantly similar to the beloved third edition, with some clever add-ons like “Advantage” that really spice up the gameplay. Gone is the crunchiness of 4e. Combat in particular is streamlined and depends far more on storytelling than strategy. But overall, D&D Next is a fresh breath of nostalgia and originality taken in at the same time. There were no major release announcements at the show, but I am more excited than ever to get my hands on the new Dungeon Master’s Guide. Bring it on Wizards.

3. Hyper Light Drifter

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I could hang any collection of pixels from Hyper Light Drifter on my wall and call it an exquisite work of art. “Beauty” is the first word that struck my mind when I saw the game in action amidst the buzz and tambour of the Expo Hall. I should have known what to expect: Hyper Light Drifter was the first project we ever covered on “Can I Kick It?” But there’s a marked difference between watching a trailer and holding a controller in your hand; letting yourself be washed away by an experience.

But despite its undeniable visual appeal, Hyper Light Drifter refuses to be style over substance. The game feels classically designed, with a story told exclusively through brief “motion comics”. Mostly, the player defines his own tale by exploring the technicolor ruins of an ancient civilization that is caught somewhere between high fantasy and hard science fiction. Any details of the plot are there to be uncovered and analyzed, but the game won’t hold your hand and tell you exactly what’s going on. As such, the setting feels uniquely inventive and new. It’s blissful to stand in wonder and awe of mountainous robots, day glow temples, and bent, ruined landscapes.

Hyper Light Drifter plays like Diablo, peppered with The Legend of Zelda’s excellent puzzle solving. Combat is difficult, but forgiving and there always seem to be an appropriate piece of equipment to solve any problem. But simply strolling through the world and listening to the gorgeous soundtrack is a joy unto itself. Violence is merely a break from the beauty of your surroundings.

I can’t wait to see if the full experience lives up to the brief time I had with the game. Hyper Light Drifter is proof that my faith in Kickstarter is sometimes rewarded greatly.       

2. Civilization: Beyond Earth Announced

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If you were to ask me what the single greatest game ever made was, I’d probably tell you it was an impossible question to answer. If you kept prodding, I’d respond that Civilization is probably the single greatest series of games ever created; not necessarily my favorite, but the best. They give the player the ultimate power: to control the history of humankind, to build a society from the ground-up, and to learn about cultures that have shaped our own world. I adore Civilization and any time news breaches that an addition to the storied series is being introduced; I pay attention.

Civilization: Beyond Earth is taking this turn-based strategy giant into a new direction. After the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, human beings are forced to evacuate the world that we know and head to the stars. Various cultures colonize the new home world; each replete with their own virtues and beliefs. Unlike previous editions, Beyond Earth allows players to decide which qualities will be important to their civilization and do all that they can to build around those morals. Technology will be another obvious focus of the game and the team has done research into a wide range of emerging tech that will stimulate interesting gameplay while maintaining a basis in actual science.

Firaxis has repeatedly mentioned that Sid Meier’s first foray into hard science-fiction – Alpha Centauri – is a major influence and this may be the closest we ever get to a sequel. There are still many details that are being held back for the future, but it can’t be denied that Civilization: Beyond Earth was the biggest announcement of PAX East 2014.

1. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

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You have got to play Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime. I’m not giving you any options. In the vast sea of indie games at PAX East, this game captured my imagination and my heart in a way that’s difficult to describe without forcing a controller into your hands. There’s something irresistibly charming about the visuals and the gameplay that manages to create true, effortless verisimilitude. All of the moving parts work in perfect tandem. It was the first game I played on the show floor and the one that stayed on my mind the longest. Anyone I talked to was bound to hear about Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime eventually. I couldn’t escape its colorful charisma.

The game is a cooperative multiplayer space adventure with a twist. Two players board a spherical vessel and operate a multitude of different interstellar systems: shields, directional guns, and the helm. The problem is, it’s impossible to manage them all at the same time. And as waves of alien enemies begin to swarm on the horizon, you have to work together to survive. Don’t be deluded by the bright pastels, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is serious business. It’s far too easy to become quickly overwhelmed by incoming starships and life-or-death decisions have to be made in an instant. Occasional power-ups offer a bit of a respite; with massive space flails and giant laser beams clearing the screen, but the challenge increases as time passes.

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime succeeds based on its gameplay alone. The art design is catchy and fun, but innovative mechanics are the real source of the game’s greatness. It’s addictive and brilliantly chaotic, adding a new language of play to a genre that’s existed since the first arcade machines arrived in pizza shops. This is the natural progression of something like Asteroids or Space Invaders. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime will put an enormous smile on your face and allow you to create amazing memories with the friends who will act as your astronautic partners. It will also frustrate you and challenge you to push your teamwork skills to the limit. But every ounce of aggravation is worth it and Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime rewards success with a genuine feeling of satisfaction.

Without any hesitation, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime was the best game of PAX East 2014.

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If you’d like to read the previous entries, click below:

Part One (25-16)

Part Two (15-6)

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Top 25 Things We Saw At PAX East 2014 (#15-6)

If you missed 25-16, check them out here!

15. Actual Sunlight

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We’re going to reserve most of our praise for Actual Sunlight because a definitive review is right around the corner, but it’s impossible to deny the impact that this game has made on us. We desperately want to share it with you.

Anyone who has suffered through depression or mental illness views life through a different lens. It’s a tremendous weight on the soul and even on good days, the anxiety that the sadness will return is crushing. Actual Sunlight is one of the first games I’ve played that truly reflects the physical and psychological rigors of depression. The game tells a linear story through mundane roleplaying game mechanics and minimalist visuals, but Actual Sunlight’s true significance is its incredibly important subject matter. We’re at a juncture in history where mental health is on the minds’ of the mass populace and this game is both and educational and empathetic. Keep it on your radar until we get our complete thoughts together.

14. A Hat in Time’s Cooperative Mode

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A Hat in Time is unadulterated joy in a digital package. It will make you smile and laugh and take you back to those simple reasons you loved games as a kid: iconic characters, bright colors, and catchy gameplay. Inspired by classic 3D platforming “collect-a-thons” like Banjo Kazooie and Super Mario 64, Gears for Breakfast’s new game can stand next to each of its predecessors proudly as a peer. A Hat in Time proves that Kickstarter can be an enormous force for artistic good, bringing back a genre that few companies outside of Nintendo have been able to crack.

I was highly anticipating my time with this title, a game I had been following since its crowd-funded inception; but what I wasn’t prepared for was a live demo of the recently announced cooperative mode. Playing games with strangers is one of the truly magical aspects of PAX and sharing A Hat in Time with another gamerhelped to express just how broad of an experience it hopes to be. The co-op mode is every bit as engaging as its single player counterpart. I took up the mantle of the titular Hat Kid and my partner helped me navigate a free-floating maze with oodles of shifting and spinning platforms. After some time, I discovered that I was particularly talented at hurling Hat Kid to an untimely death; but the challenge was a huge part of the fun.

A Hat in Time captures something spectacularly retro, while simultaneously feeling completely fresh and new. But more importantly, it offers a rare opportunity for split-screen co-op. Prepare, my friends, because you will be playing this.

13. Miegakure

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How does one begin to describe Miegakure without doing it an injustice? How does one wrap their head around a fourth spatial dimension? Honorable questions, but both have answers that are almost as nebulous as my first experience with Miegakure. That’s not a slight on the quality of the game, in fact, it’s the opposite. Miegakure is confusing in all the right ways; it stimulates the mind and forces the player to solve physically impossible puzzles. It’s like taking a day trip to some far away universe where our laws of nature don’t exist.

It’s an experiment, really, and a beautiful one. The developers simply wanted to know what would happen if they added a w-axis into a formerly three-dimensional environment. The results are a kind of digital magic that allows the player to manipulate space and shift their character through walls or teleport to new locations at the tap of a button. I was rarely certain what I was supposed to be doing in Miegakure; but I knew that the game was opening my mind to new concepts and ideas. Exploring the fourth dimension could potentially lead to a philosophical overload, but Miegakure handles it effortlessly and with an unmatched beauty and presentation.

Miegakure is a perfect example of science and entertainment coming together to accomplish something greater than either field can achieve alone. You’ll never solve another puzzle like this one.    

12. PAX South Announced!

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The tweet says it all. As if Penny Arcade wasn’t already the reigning champion of gamer conventions, the company announced a fourth Expo to take place in San Antonio, TX. This will give all our Southern brethren a chance to know what it feels like when passes sell out in twenty minutes too!

It’s a bold choice and you have to wonder if Penny Arcade is spreading itself a bit thin; but that won’t cease my excitement. PAX is an experience that deserves to be shared with anyone who would enjoy its overwhelming charms. There isn’t much more to know yet. Details are still pretty scarce. But I can promise you that as a man who loves to visit Texas, PAX South is a convention I look forward to attending in the future.

11. Darkest Dungeon

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Darkest Dungeon has been a Jetpack Joust favorite since we first covered it on “Can I Kick It?” several weeks ago; but when we learned it would be making its gameplay debut at PAX, it shot to the top of our most anticipated list. It did not disappoint.

Rarely has low fantasy been handled with such deft care. Darkest Dungeon adds a dose of much needed hand-drawn realism to the genre, asking the player to deal with the psychological damage of battling disturbing monstrosities. As a wealthy patron hoping to discover the truth of what lies beneath his mysterious estate, the player hires and controls a number of heroes from the local tavern. They delve deep into the cavernous below; engaging in turn-based combat with the undead and the aberrant. But the player has to carefully manage the adventuring party, because if they become too stressed or weary, paranoia or insanity can begin to set in. Afflictions of madness cause the player to lose control of that character’s actions, which can have a seriously negative impact on the mission. Selfishness might cause a character to steal from the group. Fear can send the bravest warrior running for his life. Masochism might lead the group’s healer to think that self-damage is the only way to survive. Darkest Dungeon is a horror game wrapped in the cloak of fantasy and the oppressive atmosphere of the game’s death and destruction will force the player to make difficult decisions.

Somehow I managed to get out of my first dungeon with a single party member in tact. I don’t suspect that will be a common advantage in Darkest Dungeon. I can’t wait for this game to punish me.

10. Grey Goo

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The heyday of real-time strategy games feels so far behind us now. Occasionally, there’s a Starcraft II or Rome: Total War to quench our thirst, but it’s a mostly barren and deserted landscape at this point. Grey Goo is one of the first high profile and original RTS’ that I’ve come across in some time. PAX was its official coming out party, complete with a playable demonstration and touch-screen LED encyclopedias to keep patrons entertained while waiting in line. The whole presentation was pretty stellar, but it was the game itself that really shined.

Grey Goo is unique in that each of the playable factions sports a different style of gameplay, while somehow remaining spectacularly balanced. Humans have mostly quelled their warring nature; but when they encounter an aggressive alien race, they are forced to take their academic understanding of military science and transform it into more practical knowledge. Humans are entirely reliant on their technology and build sprawling bases connected by long roads, protecting themselves with enormous walls. The Beta are an extraterrestrial race that were once masters of space travel, but have since fallen on hard times. They attempt to rebuild their shattered society from the ruins of their last starship and as such, they are more terrestrial and insular than their Human enemies. Lastly, the Goo are the amorphous remnant of human experiments with nanotechnology; a civilization of nomadic machines that consume everything in their wake.

The experience is customized for the player depending on which faction they choose, a recipe for endless replayability and strategic analysis. Multiplayer matches are fast-paced and engaging, reminiscent of the classics of the genre. In many ways, Grey Goo is the spiritual successor to Command & Conquer; and if that doesn’t incite excitement, I don’t know what will.    

9. State of Decay: Lifeline and Class 4 Rumors

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As far as I’m concerned, State of Decay is the king on top of a massive heap of zombie games. While the original incarnation was a buggy mess, it managed to slither its way into my heart with killer design decisions. It masters the strengths of the zombie concept: tense survival mechanics, brutal and difficult combat, community building and permanent consequences for mistakes. State of Decay’s genius is its ability to let players created their own implied storylines and relationships; making it as personal as it is epic. But once the experience is over, there are few reasons to go back.

State of Decay: Lifeline is the game’s second major expansion, but really the first major overhaul of content. Perhaps the biggest inclusion is an entirely new landmass to explore: the city of Danforth, in which scientists have been working towards a cure for the virus. Players take control of Greyhound One, an elite squad of soldiers that has been sent to retrieve the scientists from certain death. This focus on the military is a new perspective for State of Decay as the army often served as the primary antagonists in the original title. It also offers new opportunities for base building, such as minefields and artillery. But what makes Lifeline truly appealing is the way in which it reverses the dynamics of the gameplay. Instead of taking on the role of a survivor who starts with nothing and slowly builds his resources, the player starts well-equipped and well-armed. However, as the game progresses, your equipment can not be replaced and the challenge is based in the loss of materials instead of the acquisition.

Undead Labs also broached the subject of their inevitable jump into the multiplayer space. State of Decay was intended as an experiment before eventually moving to a Zombie MMO and while no official announcements were made at PAX, the developers have confirmed that they are still hard at work on this original idea. Code-named Class4, we hope to hear more about this massively multiplayer experience very soon.

8. Invisible, Inc.

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Knock on wood, but Klei Entertainment is a company that couldn’t make a bad game if it was actively trying to. Shank is one of the first examples of major indie success and ever since then, Klei his been riding high on the critical acclaim of titles like Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve. With a distinct art style and keen attention to detail, they’ve created a quintessential brand that could easily compete with the Triple A titans.

When you take Klei’s pedigree and add in the strategic brilliance of a tactical turn-based experience like X-Com, you create an irresistible combination. Invisible Inc. is an exciting new property that puts the player in the role of a team of corporate spies tasked with gathering information on competitors. Agents infiltrate massive organizations in a near future environment where robotic sentries and guards protect valuable secrets. As such, combat is a secondary option. Instead, Invisible Inc. emphasizes stealth and hacking. The shadows are your best friend as you navigate endless hallways, server rooms and offices; accessing databases to temporarily disable security arrays. You can play the entire game without ever lifting your weapon, but should conflict arise, the means are almost always non-lethal. The goal is to leave no trace that you were ever even there.

Invisible Inc. is a gorgeous game with a slight learning curve, but vast strategic potential. It took me some time to grasp the complexities of the gameplay, but once I did, I was stunned by the openness it affords the player. There are many ways to approach the espionage and by the end of the demo, I felt like a super spy. Invisible, Inc. is the only game I pre-ordered for myself at the show and I am incredibly confident that it will be one of the best games I play in 2014.          

7. Pre-PAX Board Game Night

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There is no better way to prepare for the enormity of PAX than by attending the annual Pre-PAX board game night as hundreds of gamers flood the Waterfront Westin and take over tables in bars and restaurants. It’s a majestic sight if you’re used to more intimate board game gatherings. The hobby can feel like a niche at times, but as numbers grow for this increasingly popular prelude to PAX, it’s clear that more and more people love having these tabletop experiences.

Pre-PAX board game night is a great opportunity to try out new games or interact with other fans and convention goers. After our eight-hour drive to Boston, I almost decided to stay in the hotel and catch up on some much needed sleep. I’m glad I chose to go out on a limb and do the opposite. We played Village with some fellow Baltimoreans and had a number of other strangers join our table to watch. It was an absolute blast and made me feel as if the Expo had already begun.

If you’re planning to attend PAX in the future, I can not suggest this event enough. Squeeze out all the time you can with other gamers, because the convention ends far too quickly.

6. Gods Will Be Watching

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Choice and consequence are part of what makes gaming a unique form of art. Instead of a single, linear narrative, games can offer players the ability to form their own individual experience. Point-and-click adventure games are particularly adept at this, focusing on delivering story as opposed to intricate gameplay. Gods Will Be Watching is an attempt to pear down the genre to its most simplistic elements. All there is, is choice. Players follow Sgt. Burden and his team of interstellar explorers through six dangerous and life-threatening situations. Each of these scenarios takes place over the course of a number of “days” and each day is made up of just a few in-game minutes. Sgt. Burden must assure the survival of his crew, but he has a limited amount of time to discover their needs and execute the narrative puzzles that will keep them alive.

For example, when stranded on a barren planet, it was important that I retrieve enough wood to keep the fire going so that we wouldn’t die in the cold wilderness. But the time it took to gather the wood was time that could’ve been spent speaking to the doctor, who was slowly going insane from the trauma of the crash. The doctor killed himself the next morning, leaving us unable to heal some of the sick members of the crew. Gods Will Be Watching is filled to the brim with these kinds of moral dilemmas, in which there is no high road. The questions the game asks become far deeper and more substantial than the above threat and the time limit makes every piece of minimal dialogue feel noteworthy. It’s as if you removed every element from Mass Effect but its conversation wheel. What you’re left with is a devastatingly emotional experience.

Gods Will Be Watching is a tribute to classic LucasArts adventure games, but it also succeeds in innovating a stale gameplay formula. I can’t wait to see the rest of the events unfold for Sgt. Burden and his crew. I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down to play this one, but I’m tremendously glad I did. You can prepare for the experience with the original mini-game.   

 

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Top 25 Things We Saw at PAX East 2014 (#25-16)

25. Slash: Romance Without Boundaries slash

Cards Against Humanity has really reinvigorated the party game scene in the last few years and Slash: Romance Without Boundaries is an entertaining extension to this trend. Fan fiction is the guilty pleasure of many an internet user and this game plays in that realm; asking players to justify the wild relationship pairings of various fictional characters, celebrities, and historical figures. As in CAH, Slash designates a floating role known as the Matchmaker who acts as an inciting action and a judge. Each round, the Matchmaker places one character from his hand on to the table and chaos ensues as the other players’ choose the perfect match and creatively explain why their choice is the best.

It’s a fun and effortless experience with tons of clever references; I didn’t expect to find Demona from Gargoyles in the stack. Surprisingly, the mental fortitude and imagination it takes to unify these varied universes is quite a challenge and the humor of the game comes from the debates that arise around the table. Pull out Slash at a party and you’re bound to have a good time.

24. Elegy for a Dead World elegy

I didn’t actually have the chance to play Elegy for a Dead World, but it was the real standout at the Dejobaan Games’ booth. The game is gorgeous to look at and the looping trailer really managed to capture my imagination. From what I understand, Elegy takes place in one of three post-apocalyptic worlds influenced by famous Romantic poets like Keats, Byron, and Shelley. The player has been sent to chronicle the demise of these planets and as they explore the shattered ruins of ancient civilizations, they take notes that are shared across cyberspace with other players. This collective note-taking is an experiment in joint storytelling and is the real meat of Elegy’s gameplay. Dejobaan is no stranger to taking mechanical risks in their games and I can’t wait to see how this innovative choice will impact the experience of Elegy for a Dead World.

23. Mew-Genics mewgenics

When Team Meat announces a new game, the world listens. Deep within the PAX show floor, behind the expansive Bethesda booth, was everyone’s favorite two-man development team showing off the playable demo for Mew-Genics. Alas, I didn’t actually get my hands on this one because the lines were too enormous, but I did spend some time watching other players navigate the dangerous world of being a “Cat Lady”. There was unadulterated joy and curiosity on the faces of a number of people; an accurate response to a game that combines the cuteness of kittens with Team Meat’s trademark sick sense of humor.

Essentially, Mew-Genics takes the animal collection mechanic of Pokemon and the simulation elements of The Sims, tosses them in a blender and spits out something distinctive and exhilarating. I’m not even sure that I entirely understood what was going on onscreen, but in Edmund and Tommy we trust. Expect great things from Mew-Genics: it’s charming, ambitious, and exactly what you want to follow-up Super Meat Boy.  

22. These French Fries are Terrible Hotdogs thesefrenchfries

I’ve already mentioned that the tabletop party game is going through an exciting resurgence and the proliferation of light, creative card games was incredibly evident at PAX. One of the most exciting developments was the inclusion of tabletop games at the Indie Megabooth, confirming the connection we’ve often suggested between the indie and board game revolutions. Of the eight titles presented, word-scrambler These French Fries are Terrible Hotdogs was probably the most impactful and entertaining. The game is a bit more structured than Slash, but that structure manages to stretch players’ mental flexibility and provide a few hardy laughs along the way.

At the beginning of a round, the first player places a card on the table face up. It might contain a word like “Hot Dog”. The other players than place their cards face down and have to convince the original card-holder that their words are the same. But the trick is that you can only use phrases that can describe both objects. For example, if my card is “French Fries”, I could say, “This goes very well with ketchup.” If you successfully persuade the original card holder, you win the round. These French Fries are Terrible Hotdogs sounds silly, but it actually forces players to make interesting connections within language. I found this game to be utterly charming and I would not be surprised if it ends up as a huge hit, because it hits the sweet spot between family-friendly and strategic. There was no better new tabletop experience at PAX than These French Fries are Terrible Hotdogs.

21. Chroma Squad Chroma

Children’s television is on the lower end of the film production hierarchy and Power Rangers is probably considered one of the lowest of the low. But small budgets and wonky scripts haven’t kept our favorite multicolored heroes down: they’ve lasted more than twenty years. Chroma Squad is a turn-based roleplaying game with a unique sensibility. The player is actually a producer on a Sentai-style television program tasked with keeping costs low and ratings high. You hire a cast, modify their costumes and weaponry, throw together a duct-taped set, than ‘film’ episodes of martial arts driven hilarity.

I was absolutely shocked by just how deep the customization options for Chroma Squad are. This is where you’ll find a lot of the real fun, expressing yourself in ways you never knew you’d be able to: give the heroes dragon masks, design increasingly bizarre monstrous enemies, and tell the stories that you want to tell with the tools available. The whole affair is schlocky and a bit tacky, but that’s what makes Chroma Squad so damn wonderful.

20. This War of Mine thiswar

There have been hundreds and hundreds of war games over the years, typically pitting heroic soldiers against despotic or tyrannical enemies. But war is far more expansive than the battlefield; it often leaves tragedy in its wake. The lives of civilians are forever altered by the actions of opposing military forces. This War of Mine examines these effects, giving the player control over a group of survivors who must forage through the ruins of their bombed-out city and avoid an occupying enemy.

My interest is always peaked when a game appears to have a political or social message attached. Rarely is gaming used explicitly for this purpose. While This War of Mine does offer a new and significant perspective on violent conflict, it is actually a rather straight-forward survival experience; sharing quite a lot in common with games like Don’t Starve or State of Decay. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it will certainly attract more players, but I was expecting something a bit more bold and opinionated. Still, This War of Mine is riveting due to its fresh viewpoint and brutally detailed environments; but I secretly hope that the game will propose something even more philosophically challenging. Fingers crossed.

19. Always Sometimes Monsters alwayssometimes

Unfortunately, Always Sometimes Monsters was a bit of a disappointment for me, but I can’t really blame the game. The truth is that I was so excited by the premise alone that I was ready to christen it Game of the Show before we even arrived at PAX. Always Sometimes Monsters is a tale of love and loss in which the main protagonist has randomized features including race, gender, and sexuality. Their romantic partner is also a random combination of these elements and as the plot unfolds, players are forced to put themselves in shoes they might not normally fit in. The game is primarily a dialogue driven adventure that revolves around significant choices that can alter the relationship and the plot.

But the convention environment is not terribly suitable to an experience as personal and decision-based as this one. By the time I was finished cycling through most of the expository information, my time with the demo had come to an end. I was never able to make a story-shifting choice or get to know the character that was supposed to be the love of my life. As such, Always Sometimes Monsters initially read as a rather subpar experience. Luckily, the concept is strong enough that I’m definitely willing to give it another shot upon release. I want to take my time with this one and really let it soak in. Don’t be discouraged by my review, I’m still confident that Always Sometimes Monsters will be amazing.

18. Distance distance I’ve always been a secret fan of crazy off-the-rails racing games like Burnout, Diddy Kong Racing, or F-Zero. Distance is a game that wears these influences on its sleeves, combining various mechanics to push the racing genre to its most insane limits. Holographic walls pop out of the ground, cars are cut in a half and brought back together, drivers cling to walls and ceilings or just fly through the air to reach their destinations; Distance is a celebration of what it means to go fast.

We often look for underlying emotional and intellectual context at Jetpack Joust, but to be honest, this one is just a lightning bolt of fun pointed directly at your skull. Distance adds raw adrenaline and excitement to creative tracks and power-ups that could really reinvigorate indie racers. What’s more, players are given real options in terms of the ways that the approach the race and winning can happen through a number of interesting means. This adds a layer of replayability that is quite refreshing. Few games at PAX brought as much sheer joy to my soul as this one did.

17. The Giant Evolve Monster evolve

Erecting a horrifying ten-foot tall monstrosity in the center of the Boston Convention Center makes one hell of a statement; but when you’re the company behind Left 4 Dead and Counterstrike, you can afford a little boldness. But seriously, this danger beast is pretty sweet, right? It’s a hell of a marketing stunt. I’m just glad it didn’t come to life and start rampaging through a sea of nerds with nothing to defend themselves but their skills in Pokemon and Dungeon Mastering. We would’ve had to have turned to the cos-players with their kick ass foam swords to defeat the creature.

But in all seriousness, Evolve looks like it’s going to be the next huge Steam multiplayer experience. A team of four mercenaries is sent to a mysterious planet to hunt a massive super-predator played by a singular opponent. This team has really mastered the dynamic of monsters vs. humans in Left 4 Dead, so I’m excited to see where they take it with Evolve.

16. Mushroom 11 mushroom11

It’s always interesting when a developer takes a tried-and-true genre and adds a unique twist that completely changes the way we perceive gaming. Mushroom 11 is a game that was quickly picked up by the Indie Fundbecause of its innovative approach to the two-dimensional side-scrolling platformer. Set in a post-apocalyptic environment where much of animal life has been decimated, Mushroom 11 is the story of a sentient fungus that can adapt its shape to move through the world. Players’ are the guiding force behind our sponge-y protagonist using a tool that can grow or shrink the plant at will. It’s a deceivingly simple mechanism with endless implementations and the games’ physics-based puzzles become subtly more difficult over time.

But mostly, it’s performing the same kind of tasks that you would as a traditional gaming character – but as an immobile, amorphous blob – that is the seed of Mushroom 11’s greatness. This was by far one of the most unique gameplay experiences at PAX East.

Cory’s Top 5 Games of PAX East 2014

The JPJ team has returned from PAX East 2014 with a ton of great memories and even greater games to discuss! In this informal video, Cory reveals his five favorite games of the show; attempting to highlight some of the lesser seen gems.

(We’d like to apologize for any technical issues. This video was really just a quick attempt to get out some of our feelings about the convention. Cory is out of focus a bunch, but he was also sore, unshaved, and unshowered after an 8 hour drive. In other words, it’s probably best that you can’t see him. Give it a watch anyway, because the games are worth it.)

PAX was better than ever! If you went, what was your favorite moment? Your favorite game? Your favorite panel? Comment below.

If you’re too lazy to watch the video, we’ll be posting the 25 Best Things We Saw at PAX East 2014 later this week!

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Heading Home…

There are few things  in this world that are quite as exhilarating for a gamer as the days leading up to PAX. It’s the festival that celebrates us: the people who play games and the culture that has grown up around interactive experiences. Penny Arcade calls it “home” for a reason. Because despite the crowds and the long lines and the shitty food, PAX is a comfortable place for gamers to simply be themselves and to revel in that feeling with others just like them.

My bags are packed. Billy is busily baking chocolate chip dough for the Cookie Brigade. Matt is simply chomping at the bit to get there and play a fuck ton of board games (it’s his first time). PAX East is what helped build this steadily growing house that we call Jetpack Joust; it solidified our friendships and dreams and deepest ambitions. Suffice it to say, I would not have had these revelations without our three days in Boston last year and I’m hoping that PAX East 2014 will only expand our vision and reach.

As such, we’re going on a bit of a hiatus for the next week-and-a-half. PAX East is a beast we hope to conquer. It’s fun incarnate, but it is also pretty damn time consuming. We plan on meeting indie developers and playing their games, we plan on shooting some exclusive footage for our YouTube channel, possibly even podcasting and we plan on having a great time. There won’t be many updates to the website, but have no fear, we will be flooding you with interesting tidbits from the convention for weeks to come.

We’ll also be tweeting throughout the entire event, so please follow us on Twitter: @JetpackJoust. Feel free to contact us if you’d like to meet up over the course of the weekend to play some games.

And if you too are making the trek to PAX East, we hope you get there safely and have a fantastic few days floating yourself through gamer heaven.  We’ll see you when we all get Home.

JPJ will be back, high on the wondrous sights of new games, we promise. Bill Murray!

—Cory Stine, Editor-in-Chief and Council Spectre

 

 

“Can I Kick It?” Episode 6 – Death in Candlewood, Baffledazzle, The Breakout, Aetherium, and Grave

Check out the brand new episode of “Can I Kick It?”, featuring five amazing crowdfunded games: the first-person survival horror “Death in Candlewood”, the revolutionary puzzles “Baffledazzle”, the point-and-click jailbreak “The Breakout”, the cyberpunk miniatures game “Aetherium”, and the procedurally based scares of “Grave”.

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Painted by Memories: Ether One

Ether One is all at once a riddle and a puzzle and a logic problem; each within the other, spiraling together until the mysteries and their answers can’t be separated. It’s not so much a game as it is a deeply emotional experience. All of this language may seem cryptic and unspecific, but that’s because it is truly hard to describe the lasting impact that Ether One has had on me. I’ve had a few days to separate myself from it, but still my mind wanders to the peaceful village of Pinwheel and the journey contained within. It’s an experience that I am still deciphering, but one that I’m sure I enjoyed.

The game begins in the sanitized offices of Ether One, a near-future corporation that has designed experimental technology that can retrieve the important memories of dementia patients. The player is hired as a Restorer, a key participant in the retrieval process who enters the mind of the patient and navigates through a mental construction of their inner life. It’s the job of the Restorer to collect “memory fragments” that when assembled create a “core memory” that can help to illuminate significant events in the life of the user. The player is assigned to an old woman named Jean, whose psychological environment is a recreation of the small town in which she grew up: Pinwheel.

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Once inside the mind, the Restorer can not return to the waking world until all of the core memories have been unlocked. Luckily, Pinwheel is a relatively safe and pleasant place, painted like a luscious impressionistic painting by Jean’s decaying psyche. Still, the empty environment feels haunted and unsettling, as if the entire population had simply disappeared overnight. Toys lay strewn about the floors of children’s rooms, radios play jazz throughout the otherwise silent air, and kitchens are left messy with half-cooked meals. Ether One is not a horror game, but the crawling fear of losing one’s past is conveyed brilliantly by the abandoned streets and passageways. Only the remnants of the people who make up Jean’s memories are left: their letters, their possessions, and occasionally their voices.

Traversing the colorful locales of the village and its surrounding country, the player searches for bright red ribbons on maypoles: the primary indicator of Jean’s fragments. The Restorer’s only companion is the disembodied voice of the doctor who hopes that this experiment will prove the validity of her technology. She is cold and distant at first, frustrated by an endless amount of failures; but as the player’s successes mount, the doctor becomes far more warm and comforting. As more ribbons are uncovered, she reveals the sad story that led to her lofty ambitions building a connection that almost feels like a real friendship, a real bond.

Collecting the fragments is a calming endeavor that asks very little of the player in return. The tragic story of Ether One can weave itself without applying any added stress or complexity. There is no combat and no action. This is a game with a deliberately casual pace that emphasizes exploring every available nook and cranny of the world. It wants to enrapture the player slowly, offering them the chance to play purely for narrative reasons.

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However, there is another, perhaps more satisfying option. If you are up to task, Ether One is filled to the brim with intricate puzzles that require a keen mind and a prolonged memory. Some of the solutions to these tasks unfold over the course of several hours; a key you pick up in the beginning of the game may not be of use until the very end. So much can be garnered if you simply pay attention to some of Ether One’s finer details. The satisfaction of completing such involved riddles resonates in the heart and the mind and helps to tell a richer, more refined story. These puzzles can be frustrating and intimidating at times, but they are well worth the time and effort.

Whichever way you choose to play, Ether One refuses to hold your hand. Both puzzles and plot require a bit of mental detective work on the part of the player. Nothing is ever spelled out, but all of the connections are there to be discovered. It is actually a tremendously intimate and personal tale of love and friendship, told through the guise of a science fiction story. At first, Ether One comes across as another attempt to emulate The Matrix; but it quickly transforms into something else entirely and the technology fades into the background as a purely metaphorical device. All of the tiny details revealed throughout the player’s exploration culminate in a beautiful and harrowing climax that reveals an entirely new layer of meaning. The game is a pressure cooker that builds incredibly slowly, but the explosive conclusion will no doubt lead to debate for years to come. The final moments will stay with you forever as a profound work of art.

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I will, however, admit that Ether One is a bit of an acquired taste. It is unlike anything that I have ever played before and as such it took me some time to warm up to its charms. Even as the game approached its end, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I knew that it expertly evoked a well of emotions within me, but the gameplay felt occasionally erratic, ill-defined and unfocused. It was only with hindsight and analysis that Ether One became an essential part of my gaming history.

That’s because dementia is such a strange topic for a video game to approach; at least at face value. So many of us are touched by this disease, as we watch family members seemingly fade away. They lose their faculties and begin to forget who they are, as if their very identity is changing before our eyes. We can have empathy for their struggles and help them when they need it, but we can’t experience their pain and frustration for ourselves. Ether One translates those feelings directly into its gameplay. The player is never given direct instructions; they have to navigate Jean’s confusing mindscape on their own. The puzzles revolve around recalling details learned earlier in the game and it can be difficult to remember the solutions. The story is told in non-linear bits and pieces that have to be logically assembled. Everything in Ether One is fragmented, not just the memories and attempting to tie up all of the loose ends is like attempting to conquer dementia. It’s an enormous feat, one that feels almost impossible and it perfectly echoes the fragility of the human mind.

This deep and fundamental meaning at the heart of Ether One may make it sound like a daunting trip to Melancholyville, but it’s also life affirming and visually stunning. Pinwheel is a serene port town whose simplicity somehow manages to convey the same wonder and awe as a more fantastical setting. Wandering through this world is like jumping into an impressionist painting and everywhere you look is an image that could hang on your wall. Equally as wonderful is Ether One’s soundtrack, which is one of the best I’ve heard all year. It perfectly evokes the same mood as the images without becoming overbearing. Simple melodies become memorable phrases that are ultimately important to the story at large. The voice acting is also top notch, helping to create further immersion. Ether One is a cohesive package that delivers on every front.

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But all of my praise can barely summarize the powerful experience that is Ether One. You really have to play the game to understand just how effective it is at what it’s trying to accomplish. It isn’t the flashiest or the most action-packed game, but it does provide real emotional and intellectual engagement.

Ether One is unforgettable and will linger in your mind as a reminder of just how important your memory is. Don’t miss it.

Score: 9 Out of 10

Jetpack Joust Plays: Spate!

Cory digs into the psychedelic sidescrolling steampunk universe of “Spate” from Awo Games. Tortured private investigator Bluth is sent to the mysterious chain of islands known as the X Zone to search for a missing businessman; but his addiction to absinthe and the tragic death of his daughter haunt him as he travels this already strange land. “Spate” is a visually wild platformer from a former Jim Henson employee and it is quite a lot of fun – even if absinthe doesn’t really induce hallucinations.

You can find “Spate” at:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/269810/

Episode One:

Episode Two: