(Originally published May 28, 2019)
Hey guys! So this April 28-31 marked the 9th annual Penny Arcade Expo in beautiful Boston, Massachusetts. It was also my sixth year in attendance, and I must say it was one of the better ones. Recent years have been fairly lackluster, focusing more on big releases with grandiose booths, as well as games that have already been released. Seriously, why go to a convention to play games you can play at home? But I digress. This year I saw quite a few awesome titles; both triple-A and independent releases that are sure to impact the world of gaming in a memorable way. I’ve compiled a list of my 10 favorite games at PAX East 2019, in no specific order, to bring to light those games that may have been overlooked, but deserve some recognition for making this year’s show so special.
My first day of PAX East 2019, I went alone. I never go to big conventions by myself, but no friends wanted to tag along. Rest assured, I was nervous, navigating the massive expo hall all by my lonesome. But this also was a blessing, as it gave me a chance to wait for any game I wanted without someone complaining “I don’t wanna wait for this game!” Forget those guys. Luckily, the first game I stumbled across was Starstruck, and it instantly set the tone for one of my favorite Penny Arcade Expos thus far. Combine the rhythm-infused gameplay of PaRappa the Rapper with the unconventional art style of MySims and a touch of Rankin-Bass claymation, and you’ve got the very foundation of Starstruck. The emotional, witty plot follows a guitar-playing boy who dreams of making it big in a band with his best friend. Unfortunately, they haven’t gone farther than some local opener gigs, and the crowd doesn’t seem to like them very much. But in my rather lengthy demo, I was invited to play alongside my friend in her own band, and that’s when my rhythm game skills were put to the test. The controls are quite similar to games like Rock Band Unplugged on the PSP, with face buttons used to play each note, and a simple flick of the joystick to alternate the note pathways. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but nobody else got a flawless score during my time in line. The gameplay is fun and the music is delightfully diverse, which makes for an all-around entertaining little indie. There is also some sort of creation element akin to a RollerCoaster Tycoon game – which I did not get to see in action – though I was tasked with choosing my “hand” size and width before starting the demo. I’m curious to see how this city-building aspect shakes up this standard rhythm game in the finished product, though I do not know exactly when its release window is.
My Friend Pedro
If you followed my Snapchat coverage at all, you’ll know that I visited Devolver Digital’s booth twice in one day. Their floor presence was fairly big, but their line queues were tremendously cramped, making it extremely difficult to get my hands on arguably my most anticipated release of 2019. My Friend Pedro follows a silent protagonist and his floating anthropomorphic banana sidekick, as they run through countless floors of mob activity, gunning down every thug in their path. The game is spectacularly brutal, with gore flying everywhere, as well-choreographed gunplay is Pedro‘s primary focus. Even more enticing is the inclusion of bullet time, which unbeknownst to me can be toggled on and off at any time. This not only makes slow-motion entirely optional, but it also enhances the brutality in ways I can’t even begin to imagine. One level I played – after waiting in line for nearly an hour and watching a man with one arm play better than me – had Pedro being chased by baddies on motorcycles, and ultimately a massive meat-packing van. Utilizing bullet time, I created a scene so vicious and elegant, it would make Tarantino weep. Packed with a plethora of explosions and an assortment of guns to choose from, My Friend Pedro will fulfill all your murderous parkour dreams, and then some. Look for it this summer.
As I explained on the Los Harrow Games podcast a couple of weeks ago (Episode 22), Biomutant is an adorably complex adventure about a little gun-toting Rocket Raccoon wannabe who will stop at nothing to save his home. Darkness is overtaking the world, and the tree of life stands in the path of its destruction. Luckily, our squirrelly hero and his robotic praying mantis companion are here to save the day. After a hefty customization screen, I was taken through a demo that consisted of exploring a vibrant post-apocalypse where humans have gone extinct, and animals have assumed their roles. I encountered giant beats being hunted and captured by foes that looked strangely similar to the goblins in Labyrinth, as well as a shopkeeper who spoke to me in a language I couldn’t understand. Fortunately, the witty British narrator can decipher all the dialogue, and he does so in a way that adds LittleBigPlanet-esque humor to a rather dark and depressing storyline. He properly expresses how the world of humans is seen through animals’ eyes, with vehicles and buildings being given silly names, and the purposes of weaponry seeming confusing. The protagonist can equip a wide range of weaponry, from dual-wielded guns and a steam-powered gauntlet for charged melee attacks to a mech suit that can hover, and even a giant ball of mucus that can bounce high and collect multiple enemies a la Katamari Damacy. THQ Nordic has created something both intelligent and deep, all the while toting a comedic undertone that gives life to something truly refreshing; Biomutant is as hardcore as it is simply delightful.
Lost & Hound
Video games are an art form, a learning tool, and a means of escapism that should be accessible to all types of people. So imagine my surprise when I encountered a game that is being developed with the visually impaired in mind. Lost & Hound is a simple concept that tasks you, a dog, with finding his owner in a vast, open environment (in my demo, a large grassy field). The controls are simple, the visuals are uniquely polygonal, but for the most part very plain, and the learning curve is perfect for a gamer of any experience level. But what makes Lost & Hound so great is its brilliant focus on sound. Wearing headphones is key in this game, and the entire thing could be played with your eyes closed (or, as previously mentioned, with a visual impairment). As a dog with a heightened sense of hearing, gameplay focuses on listening for the proper vibration to stay on track. This can get super complicated, and it’s a legitimate test of focus and ear strength. There is a hint button that helps direct your dog back in the right direction, but for the most part, Lost & Hound is quite a difficult game, even with 20/20 vision. I was just so surprised that due to the game’s childish art style and animal protagonist, it was being overlooked on the show floor. Lost & Hound deserves to be recognized for being more than just another indie game with a dog in it. This game is a pioneer in the field of handicap-accessible video games, and I say kudos to the whole team for going where few have gone before. Keep your eyes, and ears, peeled for Lost & Hound later this year on PC.
No Straight Roads
Keeping up with this year’s apparent trend of rhythm games (and dog games, for some reason), No Straight Roads follows two rock and roll enthusiasts in a world of evil EDM. A symbol of corporate greed and governmental corruption, electronic music and the DJ’s who make it are the baddies you’ll fight in this musical indie. After a short tutorial where I learned how to master the rhythmic combat and the importance of well-timed counter attacks, I was thrown straight into a boss fight against a larger-than-life David Guetta robot who beat me with his bumping soundwaves over the course of three stages. Not to be outdone by the giant robo-Skrillex, my interchangeable protagonists used their Kingdom Hearts-esque melee attacks and Nier: Automata-inspired ranged attacks to blow him up with the power of hard rock. While I’m not quite sure how standard level combat works or what the enemies look like in a typical level, it will be interesting to see how both protagonists’ special attacks work outside of a boss fight. The girl character can turn musical instruments into turrets while the boy can create launch pads (though I didn’t see how that’s helpful in my demo). The fight with mecha-Avicii was long, yet thoroughly entertaining, and I didn’t think it would be this hard to describe until I started writing about it. While it may be difficult to grasp through words alone, I assure you the gameplay is fluid and fun, and the story is an original twist on current day issues. I’m so glad to see music-based games making a return to the spotlight with help from the indie scene, and No Straight Roads will certainly sink its teeth into fans of the genre, as well as music enthusiasts.
I really cannot say enough about Collapsus. Last year, I wrote a PAX East Top 10 for another website I was writing for, and I included Collapsus, an up-and-coming mobile game that completely blows the match 3 genre out of the water. Now this year as I was wandering along the outskirts of the show floor, I found an old friend hiding out; the very friend I had met here a year before. This time, however, I got to play a 1v1 multiplayer battle against the game’s own programmer and got to ask him some questions along the way. Initially a mobile game utilizing a device’s accelerometer, Collapsus is a match 3 puzzle game where gravity rules everything. Fortunately, by turning your device in any direction, you control which way the blocks will fall. See the perfect 6-way match, but you can’t move that one block up? No problem, just flip your phone upside down and that block will fall right into place. Collapsus is all about keeping your eyes peeled for matches where you’d least expect them, and now with up to 8-way multiplayer, it’s about finding those matches fast! Power-ups make for a dangerous playing field, with your opponent now able to limit the number of moves you can make, and even freeze your controls entirely. It’s kind of like Guitar Hero multiplayer, or even Dr. Mario, with an intense head-to-head battle and plenty of ways to mess each other up. I don’t quite know what it is that draws me to Collapsus. It’s colorful, it’s clever, and it’s never tedious. Granted, this is coming from a guy who writes a monthly mobile app column and once spent an entire school year of bus rides making it to level 100 in iPod Touch Bejeweled. Sometimes I’m just a sucker for puzzle games, and after seeing the programmer so happy with the product he’s creating, I’ve fallen even more in love with this little passion project. Collapsus will hopefully be out later this year, and not only on mobile devices but also PC and consoles in due time.
Before you think “Geez, you went to a gaming convention and only played mobile games?” No. But I do like giving love to the mobile games that take a chance, rent a booth, and show off their little tablet baby to a crowd of console gamers. That takes some balls. Which brings me back to Millennialz, a game about the lackadaisical nature of, well, millennials on a daily basis. Reminiscent of games like Subway Surfers and Minion Rush (pictured here in the absence of a proper screengrab), as opposed to the mindless nature of Temple Run, Millennialz takes the standard endless runner, flips it 180 degrees, and throws a bunch of social media prompts at you as you navigate the sidewalk to oblivion. You heard that right. As you’re playing Shel Silverstein on the side of the road, swiping to dodge obstacles, passersby, and even stopping at crosswalks, your character is on his phone the entire time. As you walk along, you’ll be bombarded with Twitter mentions, Facebook notifications, Instagram likes, and you’ll even be forced to take Snapchat videos while walking, while avoiding every other obstacle in the world, and while being able to see barely any of the road ahead. Wow, sounds like real life, huh? The concept of Millennialz is downright batty, which drew me to it in the first place. But over time it hooked me as every endless runner does for some time, and I was determined to beat the previous high score of 72. I think I made it to 48 before realizing this game requires a lot more practice. Fortunately, it should be released before too long, and I can finally get back to doing what I do best: being a millennial.
The Sinking City
The game I know the least about, The Sinking City only had one demo station set up and a long line to boot, so I merely watched on from the sidelines while someone else played this incredible game. Imagine the Sherlock Holmes games, combined with the lore of Murdered: Soul Suspect, set in the world of Submerged. Got it? Cool, now sprinkle some Lovecraftian terror monsters in there and give Sherlock a nice gun to blow the hell out of them. Voila! The Sinking City! The backdrop of this game is a fictional Massachusetts town, which hits very close to home for me, and I love it. The visuals are extremely reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, but somehow they look even more realistic, with more accurate animations and spectacular environmental lighting effects. The only two downsides with this game were the semi-uneventful combat sequences which looked uninspired and easy to outrun, as well as the lack of animation when entering your boat to navigate the flooded streets. I would just love to see bit more polish in those areas, and then I have no doubt that The Sinking City will satisfy any mystery game fan. I fully intend to check this one out when it releases at the end of June. I can’t believe I found it so late in its development and now it’s nearly here!
Without a doubt the most unique game I saw at PAX East, Quantum League flips everything you know about the 1v1 FPS on its head. Imagine taking the tried and true Hardpoint game mode from games like Call of Duty, and sprinkling some good old fashioned time travel into the mix. In Quantum League, players are tasked with quickly choosing one of four weapons (shotgun, SMG, sniper, or grenade launcher) and rushing a control point at the center of the map within 12 seconds. Once time is up, both players rewind to the start, choose their weapon again, and repeat the action alongside their ghost from the first run. After five runs, not only will there be a lot of chaos onscreen, but there’ll be 10 players fighting for the aforementioned control point. The last man standing on the control point at the end of that round wins the match, but that’s a lot easier said than done. It’s an intense experience, having to remember your opponent’s previous moves in each go-around. Furthermore, if a player is killed in a run, their goal is to continue rushing the control point. This way, if they survive the next run, they can possibly make it to the middle and score. Providing overwatch is key as well. For example, I used two of my runs to find higher ground and launch grenades at the control point, keeping my opponent at bay throughout the entire match. Quantum League is ridiculously fast-paced, but while my demo was short-lived, it left a lasting impression on me for the rest of the convention. I can’t wait to play the full game later this year.
So that’s a wrap on PAX East 2019! It took me quite some time to get this piece out, as I was having some serious computer problems, but I haven’t stopped thinking about these games since the convention ended. I hope I’ve gotten you excited for the future of gaming, as all 10 of these games have exhilarated me in ways I didn’t even know games could. That’s why I love these conventions and getting to see what’s on the horizon; gives you something to stay excited for, not to mention how it always reignites that fire within. 2019 is a great year to be a gamer. Thanks for reading.
-Written by Graydon Webb