I miss video game conventions, the same way I miss video stores. There’s a sense of discovery from messy aisles and tables full of merch that you don’t get from streaming menus or Steam sales, as much as their algorithms may try.
Still, there’s something to be said for not having to shoulder-check through a solid wall of plague carriers to get to the games, and that’s the spirit in which I tried to approach this year’s online PAX East convention. As is my way, I spent a lot of time going over this year’s crop of indies, and here are six of them that particularly stood out, presented in alphabetical order.
What got my attention about this one, simply enough, was what looked like a 4-player co-op version of Gradius. As it turns out, that first impression was entirely accurate.
Available now on Steam and Nintendo Switch, B-ARK is an animal-themed shmup from Tic Toc Games, based out of Burbank, California. The Gradius resemblance is not an accident, as B-ARK is a “love letter,” to quote director Abraham Morales, to ’90s shooters, dressed up like a Saturday-morning cartoon show.
As one of four heroic pets, each of whom flies their own unique ship, you fight to defend Earth from an armada of alien fish. It’s not quite as brutal as a Gradius or Lifeforce, with health bars, a super meter, and a dodge button that gives you a healthy number of invulnerability frames, but B-ARK has an unlockable difficulty that brings it more in line with classic “bullet hell” shooters.
B-ARK features 4-player couch co-op out of the box, and supports Remote Play on Steam for networked multiplayer. It feels like a solid introductory game for the entire shmup genre, with forgiving mechanics, goofy characters, and a learning curve that means new players won’t be instantly vaporized.
Below the Stone
Strollart, the developer behind Below the Stone, bills it as an “indie game comeback story.” It was first announced with an unsuccessful crowdfunding run on Kickstarter in late 2019, but despite not meeting its goal, managed to pick up enough fans to gain and keep its momentum.
That, in turn, got it on the radar of Apogee’s Scott Miller, who had just decided to relaunch Apogee, previously known for publishing games like Rise of the Triad, as an indie-focused publisher. Miller told me at PAX that Below the Stone reminded him of his own 1987 roguelike Kingdom of Kroz, which spurred him to reach out to Strollart.
Below the Stone itself is a pixel-art roguelike that puts you in the role of a young dwarf, out to make his fortune by exploring the mines below the empire. You get to destroy walls, collect ore, beat on monsters, and lose absolutely everything if you die, with no chance for retrieval.
However, you can also bank your equipment and upgrades against that possibility, which allows you to sink time into preparing for the worst. Below the Stone is meant to challenge your long-term planning as well as your persistence and raw skill.
Strollart is currently targeting an Early Access release for Below the Stone in mid-2022. Before then, it plans to go back to Kickstarter in late August in order to fulfill a promise to its fans. Its latest round of crowdfunding will be used to increase the game’s scope, with Strollart’s Mike Carroll promising that contributors will have “a finger on the pulse” of the final product.
Reptoid Games, a developer in Toronto, didn’t intend for Fire Tonight to be as timely as it is. It’s a game about a fire running out of control and a guy who’s stuck alone in his apartment, which so far, seems to define the 2020s.
You spend much of the game playing as Maya, who’s stuck on the opposite side of town from her boyfriend Devin when big parts of the city catch fire. As she tries to navigate the chaos to get back to him, Devin can only sit around, wait, and explore their shared apartment. It’s maybe two-thirds adventure/traversal game to one-third visual novel, intended as a chill and introspective experience.
Fire Tonight is named after an Information Society song, and to match that song, is set in 1990. Its director, Simon Paquette, has a background in children’s animation, and has designed the game to match, with a color palette taken from ’90s-era cyberpunk.
It’s scheduled for release on Switch and Steam on August 12th.
I’ll freely admit that I first looked into this one because I thought it was a horror game, and to be fair, Fractured Veil does look like one at first glance. I initially thought that somebody had gotten sick of waiting for Dead Island 2 and had made their own tropical apocalypse.
As it turns out, I was only half right. Set 100 years after an event called the Fracture wiped out civilization, players start as recently-reawakened clones who are set out to repopulate the island that used to be Maui.
Fractured Veil is a passion project/side hustle for PC from two Seattle-based Google employees, who have been working on it alongside a third team member, project director Ryan Wiancko, since 2016.
They’ve deliberately gone out of their way to make Fractured Veil more than “Rust, but in Hawaii.” Maui and its culture are treated like members of the overall cast, which exerts a big influence on how the game looks.
The dev team also went about creating the game a little backwards, in that they didn’t tell anyone that Fractured Veil was happening at all until they’d done all the heavy lifting on its back end. The final version, which is planned to be funded via a last-push Kickstarter later this year, will support hundreds of simultaneous players, who must contend with both each other, via always-on PVP, and a variety of mutants created by the Fracture.
Reina & Jericho
A gently time-shifting “Metroidvania” from a first-time developer, Reina & Jericho is coming to PlayStation 5, Steam, Xbox Series X|S, and the Switch in the fourth quarter of 2021. (Its release date got shifted forward in order to dodge Metroid: Dread, and who could blame them?) If I had to point to a similar game, it’d be Shadow Complex, which similarly blends demanding platforming with a wide-open map full of hazards.
Reina is dragged into the heart of a mountain fortress due to her association with Jericho, who’s committed serious but unspecified crimes against the dystopian society they live in. With nothing left to lose, Reina yanks an ornamental sword off the wall and mounts an escape attempt.
She quickly discovers that the pendant she’s wearing, a gift from Jericho, has a loose ability to manipulate time. Whenever Reina dies to a stage hazard, she’s warped backward to ensure her survival, but her actions still persist in the world afterward. It’s not a full rewind, Sands of Time-style; instead, it’s a sort of shift in narrative, where Reina’s death is the only thing that gets reversed.
Reina & Jericho is being made in Unity by Dave Wightman, a former web developer in Alberta, working with his wife Vanessa and several contractors. He told me at PAX that the general theme of the game is using its time-shifting mechanics and the basic “Metroidvania” structure—backtracking, exploration, finding your way around or past obstacles—as metaphors for personal regret.
Wartales will always stick with me, as it might be the first game I’ve ever encountered that treated cannibalism like it was just another survival option, with no associated mechanical downsides.
Developed by Shiro Games in Bordeaux, France, Wartales is a dark, low-fantasy turn-based tactical RPG, inspired by “A Game of Thrones” and the work of Joe Abercrombie. It’s currently targeting a release on Steam Early Access late this year.
A hundred years ago, an empire fell to a plague, and you’re stuck in the dark-ages aftermath, eking out a living as the leader of a small group of mercenaries. Money, food, and useful equipment are all at a premium, and it’s up to you to figure out whether you’ll stick to something resembling a code of honor or go straight into marauder territory.
Most notably, however, you’re not special and this isn’t a situation you’re meant to master. Wartales is not a game about building your own personal empire, or leading the country out of the darkness. You are not special, and the game is simply about trying to survive in this mess for as long as you can. Sometimes, your best option is going to be making your victims into dinner.
I’d initially checked this out because I’m a sucker for both low fantasy and tactical RPGs, and Wartales ended up being darker than I expected. If you enjoy games that are unequivocally out to murder you without remorse, this one ought to be on your radar.