About a month ago, I attended PAX East 2020 in beautiful Boston, Massachusetts. This convention is, without a doubt, my favorite event to go to each year. Comic Con’s are fun, and Broadway shows are always great, but PAX always brings about this sense of hope. It unifies gamers and gives them this awesome slate of games to look forward to throughout the entire coming year. Especially now, in this time of isolation and hardship, there seems like not much on the horizon to keep us going. But PAX instilled in me this want to get through it. To overcome, and get to all of these fantastic games as the months go by. Some of the games I played have already come out, and they didn’t make it onto this list. Games like Session and River City Girls were awesome and a blast to play, and they’re available right now! One game I loved from PAX, Neon City Riders, almost made the list but then it got released on Steam! So go check that one out. But as for a select 10 others… well, you’ll find them right here on my annual Best of PAX list.
2020’s convention not only made me hopeful for the future and is pulling me through the Coronavirus outbreak, but it also brought a glory back to the Penny Arcade Expo that I feel has been lacking in recent years. last year was looking good, but 2020 was just fantastic. Sony pulled out on short notice due to the pandemic, and I honestly couldn’t be more thankful. While it seemed like the convention may be doomed without games like The Last of Us Part II to excite fans, we were instead left with a lot more space for some incredible indies and smaller developers to shine. The more open space helped ease crowd control, and no booth felt dwarfed by an overbearing amount of people or giant structures (okay maybe Animal Crossing was a bit much). But overall, this year’s PAX East was outstanding, and it left my buddy DJ and I thinking it was one of the best yet. So good on you, Sony, for dropping out, keeping people safe, and bringing a new perspective to the convention that I think helped a lot of developers get their chance in the sun. Let’s take a look at some of those brilliant games, in no specific order, shall we?
At a big convention like PAX East, standing in lines becomes standard practice if you’re looking forward to major releases. Typically, I stick to the outskirts of the show floor, and that’s how I find the hidden gems. But this year, one indie booth placed itself smack dab in the middle of everything, and its line of maybe 20 people left me waiting for nearly an hour. Why would I subject myself to such an agonizing wait? Maybe because Ghostrunner is such an insane experience that I had to see it firsthand. If you’re into the first-person gore of Shadow Warrior, the environment of Blade Runner, and the fast-paced action of Super Meat Boy, you’re going to love Ghostrunner. In this time-bending melee-focused action-adventure game, players must utilize their plethora of skills – including a grappling hook, wall running and sliding, and an extremely sharp katana – to escape the world that’s trying to kill them at every turn. I was shocked to find this PAX demo lasting 20 minutes; much longer if your name is Graydon. This is mainly due to the time-shifting mechanic, which allows you to slow down the gameplay to plan your next jump or decapitation. Think of Dishonored‘s blink ability, but in a much faster setting. Seriously, this game is brisk. I often found myself replaying the same moment over and over again – thankfully checkpoints are fairly forgiving – until I finally got through the segment unscathed. Ghostrunner is full of blood, steam, and plenty of opportunities to rage quit. However, if you stick with it, this game will satisfy you just as much as it will frustrate you. I’ve heard the final product will run on the shorter side, with an estimated five-hour campaign, but we won’t know for sure until the game releases within the next few months.
Alright, you caught me. This screenshot is from EQ Studios’s previous game, The Painscreek Killings, not Scene Investigators. I tried to pull the wool over your eyes, but y’all are just too good. While The Painscreek Killings is out now, and I highly recommend it for its eerie atmosphere and focus on exploration-based narrative, the new game from these talented developers is called Scene Investigators, and it was one of my favorite games from PAX East. Truly, I keep thinking about this game as days go by, and I can only say that about a few games on this list. It’s those hidden gems that leave a lasting impression that make me so grateful for this convention as a whole. Scene Investigators‘s booth was very unorthodox, with half of it being set up like an escape room with an open, interactive murder mystery to solve, and the other half full of computers to play the game on. I opted to play the game, and having never heard of The Painscreek Killings, I went in fairly blind. Equipped with a pad of notebook paper and a pen – which were generously left beside the keyboard – I dove into a hyper-realistic apartment setting to solve the mystery of the dinner party murder. I was told nothing to start, only given five questions to answer. Questions like “who died?” “who was the killer?” and “who sat in chair #4?” The only clues available were the ones left around the house, so I soon found myself searching every cupboard, trash can, bookshelf, end table drawer, and abandoned pocket book to find out where exactly I was. I quickly unraveled a story, told through answering machine messages, calendar dates, and gift receipts. I was scribbling down every minute detail on the notepad in real life, and searching every nook and cranny for more mysterious minutiae. Scene Investigators is a beautiful mess that sucks you in and makes you a character in its story. At the end of the demo, I submitted my five answers, left with a smile on my face, and now I shall wait for the first of five episodes to drop later this year.
Those Who Remain
Those Who Remain goes against everything I stand for in the realm of video games. If you know me, you know I hate survival horror games. I can’t even play BioShock because it’s too dark. So what compelled me to pick up the controller and play Those Who Remain? Perhaps it was the fact that it was the only game with a controller free. Or maybe it was the abundance of couples playing together that drew me in. Whatever it was, I felt a strong urge to give this game a shot, and in just a few short minutes, Those Who Remain became one of my most-anticipated games of the show. The premise is simple: find your missing girlfriend, er, wife. I can’t recall what she is, all I know is I showed up at a motel, and somebody stole my car. So there I was, navigating the dark streets alone, when all the lights go out and suddenly… blue eyes start closing in. Those Who Remain feeds on your fears. If you’re afraid of the dark, isolation, being watched – this game will give you chills. As you explore abandoned locales, searching for fuses to get the power back on and running from light source to light source to evade the ever-watching eyes, you find yourself slowly going mad alongside the game’s protagonist. It’s a slow, tantalizing fear that grips you in your chest and refuses to let go. But all the while, as you’re being hunted by the unknown, you must investigate your surroundings, search for clues in every cupboard, and solve the mystery that will get you back home. You are alone in this darkened world, and those who remain? Well, they don’t look too friendly. Thankfully, we’ll get to find out what they want in just a couple months, because Those Who Remain is scheduled for release in June 2020.
Lucifer Within Us
Every year at PAX, I find there being a few main themes of games on display. Last year, it was all about rhythm games and dogs. But in 2020, mysteries and skateboarding reigned supreme. Luckily, I was living for that action, which led me to discover Lucifer Within Us. This detective puzzler is perhaps the most in-depth mystery game I have ever encountered. You play as a digital exorcist, who is sent to solve mysteries in a technologically-advanced society. The twist is that a lot of these mysteries involve foul play, thanks to the demons of the world. My demo saw me investigating the murder of a high-ranking official, whose head was blown to bits by some sneaky sound waves. Lucifer Within Us is beautifully-detailed and surprisingly gory, despite its simplistic isometric design. Its color palette is pleasing and the overall look is unlike anything I’ve seen before. What better world to solve mysteries in? But I digress. As you interview suspects and gather clues, you can follow along the timeline of “how the crime went down.” As more clues are uncovered, the timeline changes up, as alibis are compared and new details emerge to invoke further questioning. It takes a lot of focus to truly master Lucifer Within Us, and I can see its array of mysteries keeping my mind busy for quite some time. Perhaps the most interesting part of the game – and one I didn’t have much time to get into during my short demo – is how demons play into the crimes. Characters have their own relationship to gods and demons, with some not believing in spirits at all, and others blaming a higher power for their mistakes. This adds a whole new layer of depth to mystery-solving in this futuristic world, and I can’t wait to see how it plays out when the game releases later this year.
The Red Lantern
These days, there are so many games on the horizon and so many news outlets revealing them, that I can barely recall where I heard of certain games first. Case in point, The Red Lantern. I want to say we were first introduced through some Xbox conference, but even then I don’t know if it was E3, Gamescom, The Game Awards, or just a random trailer drop! I suppose that’s not too important in the grand scheme of things, however, but what is important is the fact that I finally played it at PAX and it’s fantastic. The Red Lantern is a narrative-driven game centered around a female musher and her pack of sled dogs, fulfilling her dream of racing in the Iditarod. Picture this in your mind: a Telltale game with dialogue choices. Easy, right? Now, put all the exploration on rails, so the game automatically moves you through the environment, and your only choice of direction is through text prompts (e.g. go right, go left, follow that squirrel, let’s rest for the night). Not too hard yet? Good. Now throw in survival mechanics. Real brutal, like The Long Dark. Hunting for food, scavenging for supplies, reserving bullets, feeding your dogs, feeding yourself so you don’t pass out in the freezing snow. Oh, and all of that is through text options, too. You still with me? Now, wrap that whole package up with a snow-covered bow, complete with breathtaking lighting effects, adorable puppy animations, and the beauty of the aurora borealis above you. Tell me you wouldn’t accept that package with open arms – even if some of its contents seem daunting in theory – and try it on for size. That’s The Red Lantern for ya. It’s beautiful and raw and terrific, and it’s coming later this year to Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch.
Remember what I said about PAX East 2020’s focus on mysteries and skateboarding? Well here’s where the other half comes in. The first game I played this year was Skate Story. Now bear in mind, this was an early alpha build, so I have no clue when this game is even picturing a release, nor do I know much about it at all. Basically all I can report back with is the skating mechanics, and they were flawless enough to make this list alone. If you’re a fan of EA’s Skate series, you will love Skate Story. There, I said it. I know a lot of people are looking forward to Session, and to be fair I played that too, but its simulation aspect where each joystick controls a different foot will turn off a lot of “arcadey” players who love Skate. But for those people, Skate Story is here to save the day. Now, I don’t know if it will be open world, or have a sandbox, or just a linear campaign, but the tutorial I played felt so perfect in my hands that I can see these mechanics being put to use in any situation. The real beauty of Skate Story, however, is playing as a person made of glass. Every stumble, fumble, and plummet ends in a glorious death: shattering into a burst of fragments. It’s almost as enjoyable to mess up as it is to succeed. This success sure does feel good, though, as landing the perfect jump, flip, and grind feels as natural and fulfilling as Tony Hawk used to do it. Skate Story is thrilling, dark, and aesthetically astounding. For such an early build, I was surprised by not just how solid it felt, but how excited I was to play more.
Have you ever heard of a kiwi? It’s a little flightless bird with a bodacious behind and a pointy beak. They’re ridiculous, look ’em up. Anyway, the video game market for these unknown animals is fairly minimal. The Nintendo DS saw a game called Ivy the Kiwi? back in 2009, which followed a little kiwi chick with his egg still attached to his round rump as he walked across ivy tightropes to complete puzzles. It was pretty good, but again, pretty unknown. Enter: KeyWe, a new indie game developed by the little studio, Stonewheat & Sons, set to release in 2021. Fortunately, a fantastic demo was on offer at PAX East this year, and being the guy who brought the world’s biggest kiwi fan to the convention, I found msyelf playing quite a lot of it over the course of the weekend. DJ and I played both demos on offer, and walked by to watch other people play it many times. This local co-op puzzle game (you heard that right) has players controlling fully-customizable kiwis as they commandeer a post office (you also heard that right). While the demos were fairly open and complex, I’ll try to explain them as simply as I can. In the first demo, the kiwis must slam their butts onto typewriter keys to write out the messages they hear from their answering machine. After completing three rounds of this, they win! In the second demo, the kiwis must slam their butts onto word fragments to write out the messages they hear, then one kiwi must distract the massive cassowary mailmen with food while the other latches the saddle bag closed. After sending three cassowaries on their casso-way, they win! KeyWe is an ingenious concept, covered in a beautifully cartoonish color palette and coated with delightful animal humor. Honestly, this is the perfect game to get kids into video games and learning how to read and write, and it’s completely cooperative! Just a shame we have to wait so long to play it again.
Kung Fu Kickball
In the midst of great big games like Breath of the Wild, The Witcher 3, and Fallout, the world needs some lighter fare to break up the monotony, or just to play drunk at parties. Sure, there are games like Jackbox and Mortal Kombat to keep the group engaged and thinking, but what about the even smaller ones? The games with three buttons and no objective but to kill or score? Games like Starwhal, Nidhogg, and Gang Beasts? Well thankfully, 2020 has a new party game up its sleeve, guaranteed to keep parties jumpin’ long into the night: Kung Fu Kickball. Don’t ask for a complex description because I simply do not have one. Here we go. Up to two players on either side of the screen, a giant bell is your goal, and your only three buttons are to jump, kick, and dash. Got it? Great! Kung Fu Kickball! There’s really not much else to say about this game. Like the aforementioned Nidhogg, it’s all about pushing to the opposite side of the screen to kick the ball into your opponent’s bell. It’s fast-paced and frustrating as all hell. But I haven’t had this much fun with a party game in a while. This one kept me and DJ coming back as well, with a crowd gathering around us every time. Matches are short, but the tension is palpable, and dashing through the air only to miss a kick or sliding into the ball at a bad angle – sending it flying in the opposite direction – keeps players and onlookers alike on the edge of their seat. I really can’t wait to see what the finished product has on offer. With lots of varied locales with interactive environments and a cast of diverse characters (you can play as a panda!) already in the game, I’m looking forward to seeing what more can be added when the game drops later this year.
If you’re a Harmonix fan like myself, you may remember 2018’s DropMix, an interactive card-based music game from the creators of Rock Band. While it could be played with other people or on your own, DropMix‘s overall premise was as simple as it was original. Physical cards could be placed on the machine to create a beat, and with the companion app, certain parts of a track could be brought out or silenced, such as the trumpet line from “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” by Cake or the drum line from Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” The system was ahead of its time, albeit short-lived, and it made for some fun entertainment in short bursts. Now, three years later, the Boston-based company has returned to video games with the biggest booth at PAX East 2020, showcasing Fuser – or as I have taken to calling it, DropMix: The Video Game. Quite literally, Fuser utilizes the exact same premise as DropMix, with the animated background crowd of Rock Band and an EDM disc jockey setting that would make DJ Hero weep in its shallow grave. This isn’t to say Fuser doesn’t look incredible, what with its vibrant colors, flashing lights, and impressive updated tracklist including Lady Gaga, Imagine Dragons, and Billie Eilish. The unoriginal concept only slightly saddens fans of DropMix like myself, but to newcomers this will be one of the coolest interactive experiences they’ve ever seen, I assure you. Mixing beats is incredibly satisfying, and being able to drag and drop the tracks mid-song is super creative. The crowd goes wild as you build your own setlist on the fly, and nothing compares to that feeling of being completely in control of the music. Y’all aren’t ready for the beauty that is Fuser. Luckily, we won’t have to wait long to get our hands on it, as it’s set for a Fall 2020 release.
Let me take you back to a simpler time: 2007. While the Xbox 360 and PS3 were fighting their console wars, the Nintendo Wii took a backseat to the drama and continuously pumped out hit after hit for those who enjoy motion controls, Mario, and complete serenity. The latter came in the form of a wonderful title called Endless Ocean, which tasked players with simply diving into the sea and exploring the wildlife on offer. Endless Ocean even earned itself a sequel in 2009, and the series’ focus on conservation and calmness has left a lasting impression on the gaming world that has yet to be recreated in this generation. Fortunately, the creators of indie darling Never Alone have taken on the challenge of delivering a new ocean-exploration title to the masses with Beyond Blue, and having seen it firsthand at PAX this year, I must say it may have earned itself my Game of the Show nomination. While I won’t say that officially, because I love all of the games on this list equally, something about Beyond Blue provoked feelings within me that I couldn’t contain. While it was fairly simplistic and lacking in action or story, the calming nature of floating through the vast abyss, watching the wildlife thrive before you, and learning about these animals’ health and habits gave me an overwhelming sense of peace amid the crowded convention center. This ability to take over my body and suck me into this breathing world of empty space – it was unlike anything I’ve ever felt. Feeling it, being taken back to my memories of Endless Ocean again, imagining the joy on people like my girlfriend’s face who love the ocean and the creatures within it that we’re losing at an alarming pace… Am I getting too preachy? Sorry. I just know how much of an impact a game like this can have on the world, and those lovers of conservation and exploration. Beyond Blue is important, and exciting, and its presence in today’s society could do great things. I can’t wait to see how the world reacts to it when it comes out this month (supposedly).
What’s that? A runner-up on this Top 10 list? A game that I wasn’t going to talk about initially because it’s already quite well-known, but I just couldn’t allow myself to drop it? That’s right. It’s Carrion, baby! One of Devolver’s big hits on the horizon, Carrion was revealed last year in a mess of blood and guts, and the world instantly fell in love. I know a lot of us at VGU have been anticipating this one, and after playing it at PAX – and Emmett played it this past week on the YouTube channel – I can officially declare this game is something special. I was mostly surprised by just how “Metroidvania” Carrion feels. Sure, you play as a giant mass of body parts and gore, but it’s not all about killing. In fact, if you’re too small, going after one human with a gun is a suicide mission. You need to carefully navigate vents and plan out stealthy attacks on unsuspecting humans if you plan to survive long enough to get swole and deadly. Carrion is more of a puzzle game than some may think, with lever-pulling calling for a lot of backtracking, which calls for a lot more strategic murder along the way. That’s not to say the game isn’t full of a ton of disgusting, destructive brutality and violence. Honestly, standing in front of a screen with that much bloody murder screaming emanating from it made me a bit ill. This is a game for headphones, unless you want the cops knocking on your door. But this is also a game for violence-loving puzzle-solvers, and I don’t think that’s a sentence that’s ever been uttered before. Which is probably what Devolver was hoping for from the get-go. Carrion is a joy to play, and luckily we should have the finished product by the end of the year!
PAX East 2020 was as much of a surprise coming out as it was going in. Nobody knew quite what to expect when Sony and a few other companies dropped out. When The Last of Us Part II and Cyberpunk 2077 are no-show’s, and the next big games are coming out a week later (Animal Crossing and Doom Eternal), what left is there to go for? Well how about these beauties? The ones that people pour their hearts and soul into, and labor over for months, even years? They deserve recognition, too, and I hope you’ve learned about some great new games coming soon. Thank you to every developer who came to PAX East, even on the cusp of a worldwide pandemic, to display the fruits of your labor. You’re all heroes to the gaming industry, and we salute you. For even more PAX East 2020 coverage, stay tuned to March’s recAPP, which will showcase five mobile games I saw at the convention this year. Until then, stay safe!