This year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle was one of the first physical events that was held in the city since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s also a convention that was already famous for its attendees getting sick afterward. While PAX West 2021 was run with stringent safety protocols, including lowering the attendance at the venue, a lot of its traditional attendees either opted to sit this year’s show out, or couldn’t fly into the United States at all due to quarantine protocols.
The result was a comparatively low-key show, which took up maybe half the space it did in 2019. Only one AAA publisher showed up this year, Bandai Namco, which left underdogs like PM Studios and Tencent’s new livestreaming service Trovo to fill in the gap.
In effect, PAX West this year was an unusually large indie expo, with a broad assortment of games that ranged from tower defense to cyberpunk cooking simulators to slicing dudes up with your chainsaw legs. Here’s what I had a chance to see at the show, listed in alphabetical order.
Set in the same world as 562 Interactive’s previous game, the indie award-winning interactive story Alluris, Blacksmith Bay is a more explicitly dwarfish take on the “cozy life sim” genre.
As a young dwarf, you arrive in the quaint town of Port Pleasant to renovate and reopen your grandfather’s blacksmith shop. You can clean up the place, rearrange it as you see fit, then purchase ores and other ingredients from the locals and forge them into salable weapons.
While there is combat in the game, it’s reportedly restricted to making the occasional trip into the mines beneath Port Pleasant. The focus is primarily on setting up your own fantasy blacksmith’s shop, where you can take commissions, upgrade your facilities, and put word out so adventurers will come sell you the ore you need for your next batch of weapons.
Run by three brothers out of Anaheim, California, 562 Interactive is one of the most business-minded indie developers I’ve ever seen at a con. At PAX West 2019, it promoted Alluris by selling a line of merch that included some very fancy metal polyhedron dice; at 2021’s show, 562’s booth included scented candles, 3D-printed tabletop miniatures, and blank leatherbound journals with custom engraving.
As 562’s Raymond Weiler told me, it was all part of a plan to make sure they at least broke even on the trip up to PAX, and judging from the lines at their booth, it probably worked.
Cursed to Golf
It’s got an eye-catching title, if nothing else. In Cursed to Golf, you’re a real jerk of a pro player who dies from a lightning strike mid-tournament. You’re promptly dispatched to the worst part of the afterlife, Golf Purgatory, and must pass 18 holes of supernatural golf challenges if you ever want to leave.
Despite that description, Cursed to Golf isn’t much of a traditional golf game. You have three clubs, an iron, driver, and wedge, and are given a set number of shots with which to make your way through each two-dimensional stage. Run out of shots, and it’s game over.
Its producer calls Cursed a “golflite”; its stages aren’t procedurally generated, but you go through them in a random order on each run through the game. In between rounds, you’re rewarded for your performance with cash, which you can spend at a Scottish ghost’s golf store for special one-shot cards to use in emergencies.
Cursed to Golf is under development by Chuhai Labs in Kyoto, which is otherwise known for Carve Snowboarding for the Oculus Quest. It’s planned for a release in early 2022 on PC and Switch. An early version of the game can be played in-browser on director Liam Edwards’ Itch.io page.
According to Funder’s Paul Cousins, Dead Fury is the peculiar result of his homesickness for New Zealand. He missed his home country so much that he helped make a game where it’s destroyed by the zombie apocalypse. You can do anything you want in life.
Dead Fury is a third-person shooter made in Unity that takes cues from World War Z, Days Gone, The Last of Us, and The Division, where it’s you, your small supply of ammunition, and whatever traps you can set up against dozens of zombies at once.
You play as Jaxon, an infectee in post-outbreak New Zealand, who works for a local warlord in exchange for just enough of the virus’s antidote to keep him alive. It’s a tenuous situation that goes the rest of the way to hell when the warlord snaps, which leaves Jaxon on his own in the middle of a three-way war between the undead, the local gangs, and the remnants of the military.
An alpha version of Dead Fury was playable on the PAX West show floor, which put Jaxon up against a relatively small horde of fast zombies, with only a few seconds’ leeway with which to set up a few turrets and traps. I eventually ended up running like a maniac around the area, using steep slopes and tree cover to set up as many chokepoints as I could. If I hadn’t already known this was influenced by Days Gone, that frantic scramble would’ve convinced me.
The final game, which has no set release date, is intended to ship with both a story and horde mode, in order to get you murdering zombies as quickly as possible.
If I gave out awards for the highest energy level of PAX, the developers behind Dwerve would likely walk away with it. The product of Half Human Games, a distributed team that’s headquartered in Tampa, Dwerve has been in development for the last three and a half years, with funding courtesy of a successful Kickstarter. It made it into this year’s PAX 10, a curated selection of indies that received front-and-center booths in the convention center’s Expo Hall.
The game is actually named after its protagonist, rather than being a portmanteau of “delve” and “dwarf” like I’d originally thought. Dwerve is a young dwarf who lives on the outskirts of a village of his kind, who’ve resorted to lives as raiders and pillagers after the fall of their civilization. In their heyday, the dwarves fought with machines, created for them by warsmiths.
Dwerve gets taught the basics of being a warsmith in order to assist with his search for his missing mother, but then trolls attack his village and effectively end up framing his father. Dwerve’s then forced to head north, to learn more about both being a warsmith and why the trolls attacked in the first place.
Dwerve is primarily inspired by A Link to the Past, but Dwerve himself has no active attacks. Instead, every fight you’re in is dealt with by setting up a network of towers, turrets, and traps around Dwerve, while he stands in the back and pegs the closest enemy with his boomerang.
It gives the game a peculiar rhythm, as you have to quickly exploit bottlenecks, reposition your lines, and occasionally make a panicked run for safety once all your defenses fail.
Dwerve currently has a demo up on Steam that’s about 45 minutes long. It’s tentatively scheduled for release sometime next year.
Devon Parsons, the Nova Scotia-based solo dev behind Elements, describes it as “Breath of the Wild meets Witcher III,” with elements of Minecraft and Pokemon for spice. He was on hand at PAX to give guided tours through Elements, as one of the five big indie projects that have been adopted by the recently-relaunched Apogee Entertainment.
As either Nyah or Beckett, you and your sibling are sent to the world of Elemythia by your parents in an attempt to finish a quest that they couldn’t. There are eight Elemental Stones found throughout Elemythia that have fallen out of balance, which in turn is having a feedback effect on Earth.
The playable build of Elements on the PAX show floor was a very early build that was extraordinarily easy to break, but the base elements are there. You can collect raw materials from the countryside to build new and better weapons, tame animals like dinosaurs to use as mounts, and master both weapons and magic.
Elements is tentatively scheduled for release towards the end of 2022 at time of writing, and may pursue additional funding via Kickstarter at some point in the next few months.
Self-billed as “hack-and-splash action,” Firegirl is a lot like Metal Slug, of all things. As the titular Firegirl, a novice firefighter who’s following in her father’s footsteps, you go on missions into burning buildings to rescue civilians, build a social-media following, and earn cash you can spend on useful upgrades.
This is about as non-violent a take on a 2D shooter as you could hope for. You come equipped with a high-pressure water hose and a fireman’s axe. The latter is strictly used for breaking down doors and obstacles, while you can spray fiery monsters to destroy them or point the hose straight down, Super Mario Sunshine-style, to hover or add height to jumps.
Each level is procedurally generated, which gives you a random assortment of traps, tricks, enemies, and civilians to rescue. Failure means you get stuck with a hospital bill, but has surprisingly few other consequences, while success means the civilians you rescue show up at your firehouse to pitch in somehow.
It’s due out in 2022, and is under the same publisher, Thunderful, as Cursed to Golf.
This was sort of confusing. Horizon’s End, working out of New York, decorated its booth at PAX with signs that simply said “Old-School RPG,” instead of taking the more traditional route and naming the game it was there to promote. What’s weirder is that it sort of worked;according to creative director Matt Pappacardo, Horizon’s End had a real problem all weekend with getting people to stop playing their game.
Its previous game, 2018’s The Great Gaias, is a 100-hour game, created with RPG Maker, that’s firmly rocking the 16-bit revival aesthetic. It evolved from a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that the two lead developers were part of, and many of the playable characters are based on PCs from their gaming table.
Gaias’ sequel, Gjallarhorn, was only present at PAX as a trailer. Set two years after the events of Great Gaias, it’s what Horizon’s End calls a “Western Fusion RPG,” which is meant to blend the choices and consequences of modern games with the same turn-based, 16-bit style as Gaias. The company plans to bring Gjallarhorn to Steam Early Access later this year, with hopes for a full release next June.
The latest game from the prolific Canadian two-man studio Euphoric Brothers, Human Apocalypse was one of this year’s PAX 10. It’s got a demo up on Steam and a release date planned for early next year.
A new virus abruptly spread, turning those who catch it into cannibalistic zombies. Quickly afterward, however, a cure is found, which is able to return the zombies to normal. The only catch is that their skins are still green. As a former zombie, you’ve just moved to a new town for a fresh start, but not everyone is convinced the zombie apocalypse is actually over.
Human Apocalypse is billed as a story-based adventure/exploration game, with 2D graphics that are reminiscent of, but not based on, Out of This World or the original Prince of Persia. It’s honestly not the kind of game that plays well in a convention setting, but the first few minutes are one of the darkest openings I’ve seen in recent memory.
My Time at Sandrock
Pathea Games, the team behind the 2018 farming/building sim My Time at Portia, are back with its crowdfunded sequel, which is once again set in one of the coziest post-apocalypses in modern video games.
You’re a brand-new builder in the town of Sandrock, which is one of Portia’s trade partners. Unlike Portia, however, Sandrock is located on the edge of the desert, in an arid climate. Vegetation is harder to come by, and you’re told point-blank during the tutorial that you’re not to cut down the few trees they do have.
Instead, you do a lot of scavenging and salvaging, as Sandrock is surrounded by old machines and random junk. It’s another game that doesn’t lend itself well to a convention setting, but it’s got much more of a tinkerer’s vibe than Portia’s ersatz Stardew Valley flavor.
My Time at Sandrock is currently planned to enter Early Access on Steam at some point later this year.
I bounced off of this one pretty hard at PAX, but it’s got more than a dozen awards off the indie circuit, including a place on the PAX 10, so what the hell do I know?
Neon Noodles is a “cyberpunk cooking simulator” where you program machines to elegantly produce an assortment of dishes. It’s self-billed as a “zach-like” puzzle game, in the spirit of Zachtronics’s Opus Magnum and Infinifactory.
As you progress further into it, you’ll unlock over 100 recipes from all over the world, which are prepared with over 200 unique ingredients. It’s hard not to draw a fairly straight line between Neon Noodles and Overcooked, but it replaces Overcooked‘s high-speed, high-stress play with elaborate single-player programming challenges.
Neon Noodles has been on Steam Early Access since late 2019, with a new update that went live on September 3rd. It’s been doing the indie-game circuit for the last two years, including appearances as the Game Developers’ Conference, the Tokyo Game Show, and Dreamhack Beyond.
No Longer Human
This might’ve been my game of the show, and what first got my attention was its entirely indecipherable logo (see above) at the PM Studios booth.
Built by a studio called 0801, the members of which are distributed between southern California and Austin, Texas, No Longer Human is a hyperkinetic cyberpunk beat-’em-up with a soundtrack that immediately climbs into your head.
0801 describes the game as a “high-energy cybergoth action fvck-em-up,” where you’re out to conquer the world, one virtual-reality murder spree at a time. You run forward into a wireframe gauntlet at a thousand miles an hour, cutting down everyone you see, accompanied by a soundtrack that feels like someone angrily screaming at you over a blown overhead speaker.
It’s a violent cacophony that triggers your adrenal gland the moment you press start. If I find out in a couple of months that No Longer Human is some kind of brain-injection computer virus like the one in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, my only reaction will be “I guess that makes sense.”
Residual debuted only a couple of weeks after PAX, but was available for play at Apogee’s booth on the Expo Hall floor. It’s a pixel-art survival game from OrangePixel, a Dutch solo developer who’s been working on his own projects since 2004. (According to him, Residual is the 68th game he’s shipped.)
In Residual, you’re a lone traveler who accidentally crash-lands on a strange planet. In addition to managing your energy, water, and food, you must explore the planet, evade its wildlife, and craft an assortment of tools with which to survive. If you want to fix your ship and get off this rock, you’ll have to figure out how to use the strange technology left over from the former residents of the planet.
Residual has a gentle sense of humor and, if only because of its appropriately weird alien pixels, reminds me a bit of Axiom Verge. What’s a little strange, if only because of what this genre’s sort of primed me to expect, is that it’s also wholly non-violent by design. I was expecting to have to make a weapon for the first hour or so, then found out I never would. You’re entirely in it for the exploration, crafting, fishing, and eventually, escape.
The indie “platform fighter” is now officially a thing. While very few AAA companies have ever tried to complete with Super Smash Bros. on its own idiosyncratic turf, Rivals of Aether has more or less staked out his own audience, and now other developers are moving in to take advantage.
Rushdown Revolt bills itself as a solid middle ground between Smash/Rivals-style games and traditional fighters. While the goal is still to knock your opponents offscreen for the win, Revolt takes some of the guesswork out of the system by giving its characters a segmented health bar. You don’t have to memorize percentages in order to figure out what moves will work on an opponent and when; you can just glance at the bar and go from there.
Revolt is currently in a free alpha period on Steam, and introduced a new character (above) on September 22nd. Its developers at Vortex Games salvaged what would become Rushdown Revolt from a failed project called Icons, and have turned it into its current state over the course of three years’ work. Its long-term plans include actively building a community and competitive scene around Revolt, including an online coaching program that’s informally called “Revolt University.”
Now on Steam Early Access, Smack Studio is a full-fledged character builder that lets you edit 2D sprites, then transform them into a playable 3D character in a Smash Bros.-esque platform fighter. It was easily one of the most popular booths I saw at PAX, where players could make a character on a nearby laptop, then import it over to play a few matches with it against other show attendees.
Smack Studio happened more or less by accident, according to lead developer Alec Dutch; he was making animation tools to use on a game of his own when he realized he could spin the same tools off into their own product.
The character creator, which was immediately used to create a who’s-who of copyright infringement on the PAX show floor, does support traditional frame-by-frame pixel animation. However, it’s built in a unique engine that dynamically redraws pixels on the fly.
It also lets you select special moves, basic attack animations, and more granular factors like walking speed or character weight. Dutch claims you can have a usable, playable character in Smack Studio in as little as 20 minutes.
Funded by a successful Kickstarter back in 2017, Summoners’ Fate hit this year’s PAX 10 after a full four years on the con circuit. Its developer D20 Studios, a husband-and-wife team in Salt Lake City, previously made the 2012 mobile game Hero Mages.
Summoners’ Fate is made to be played in bursts, with a single run made to last around 3 hours.
It’s a grid-based tactical RPG with a touch of recent roguelike card games like Slay the Spire.
You play as the titular Summoner, who takes a direct hand in the lives of several adventurers. What happens to them is randomized, but there’s a “lore system” that adapts the game’s ongoing story on the fly to match the events you’ve seen in your run.
In each turn, your available units can act against their enemies, and you can further stack the odds in their favor by playing as many cards as your starkly limited pool of resources can allow. This can include summoning a few disposable units, landing direct damage against enemies, or making a unit into a living bomb that will explode on death.
I’d also feel like I’d done this writeup wrong if I didn’t mention the squirrel launcher. There’s a wand you can find that, when equipped, gives your lead character a weak ranged attack that also summons an angry squirrel for your team. This is, in my memory, forever fixed as “that game with the squirrel cannon,” and in my book, that’s worth something.
Summoners’ Fate is currently available for presale for $29.99 on PC, Mac, Android, and iOS, with a free demo up on Steam.
This Means Warp
Probably the most darkly comic game in this year’s PAX 10, This Means Warp calls itself a “spaceship management roguelite” for up to 4 players. The team behind it, Outlier Games, has been working on This Means Warp since 2018. Its two members work out of Toronto and Dublin.
You and your buddies, as various members of an eccentric crew of a rickety spacecraft, have to survive a trip through hostile space. Thanks to an incredibly predictable hull breach, the ship’s actual captain and crew got sucked into hard vacuum right as things got dangerous, which leaves your questionably competent characters in a mad scramble to survive.
Each incoming strike on your ship inflicts structural damage and can take out crucial systems; your team has to juggle repair work and return fire simultaneously, rebuilding crucial systems and plugging holes in the hull as quickly as your enemies can shoot them away.
Win, and you earn salvage and currency you can use to improve your odds in the next fight. Lose, and the ship blows up. One way or the other, a single round of This Means Warp is only meant to last around 2 hours, but thanks to online multiplayer and procedurally generating its universe, it ought to be significantly different on each run.
This Means Warp is planned to hit Steam Early Access at some point in the near future, with a demo planned for release on Steam on October 1st.
The main developer behind Turbo Overkill is “wadaholic,” who created a popular Doom II total conversion mod in 2018. Total Chaos uses the GZDoom engine to create a dingy, lo-fi survival horror game, like a first-person Silent Hill. While Turbo Overkill is nothing at all like that, it’s apparently the game that wadaholic “always wanted to play.”
As Johnny Turbo, you’ve returned to your dingy hometown of Paradise to discover it’s been overrun by “augmented minions” under the control of Syn, an artificial intelligence with designs on world domination.
In play, Turbo Overkill is a mobility-focused, high-speed FPS in the finest tradition of Serious Sam, Dusk, or Doom Eternal, with powerful alternate fire modes on every weapon, wall-running, and giant arenas full of dozens of enemies.
If Johnny’s got one signature move, it’s the chainsaw built into his leg, which turns your sliding kick into the single most lethal thing in your arsenal. For a lot of the people I talked to at PAX West, Turbo Overkill was better known as “that game with the chainsaw leg.”
It’s currently planned for release on all major consoles and PC, with no firm release date.
Way of Rhea
I really wanted to give Way of Rhea a shout-out here, if for no other reason than that it’s really going out of its way to provide extra options for color-blind people like me. Self-described as a puzzle-platformer “for fans who want more puzzling,” Way of Rhea was built in Rust by Anthropic Studios, a five-person team, over the course of the last three years. After bouncing around a few different conventions, it’s tentatively scheduled for release at some point in 2022.
It’s got a sort of gentle humor and relaxed pace to it which reminds me of recent games like Wandersong. You spend much of Way of Rhea simply trying to go from point A to point B and sequentially unlocking a series of colored doors, but it introduces additional tools as you go such as lamps, elevators, and teleporters.
It’s easy to pick up as you go, with a handy rewind feature that lets you go back as many steps as you have to, and it features a broad suite of accessibility options, including the ability to change the door’s colors on the fly.
I covered several of the other indies at the show for local Seattle press. In the spirit of not repeating myself too much, I’ll just link to that article here.
PM Studios had a potentially interesting horror game, Ikai, that’s scheduled for release next month. It’s a first-person adventure/exploration game set in an old Japanese mansion, where you can’t fight but have to confront the yokai ghosts that inhabit it. I could tell it’s got atmosphere in spades, but like My Time at Sandrock, it’s not a game that’s well-suited to a convention floor. I’ll be looking to check it out under the appropriate circumstances—a dark, silent room at midnight, with headphones—at some point later on.
Another game in the PAX 10, Midautumn, had skipped town by the fourth day of the show, when I’d hoped to get a look at it. Billed as a supernatural roguelite about “blasting evil spirits, saving your hometown from gentrification, and Asian diaspora culture,” it began a Kickstarter during PAX that’s since reached its initial funding goal. It’s got some strong buzz surrounding it, but again, I didn’t get a chance to check it out.
If there was one entire booth I should’ve gotten to sooner, it was White Thorn Games’s. The breakout game they had at PAX appears to be Lake, which was released shortly before the show for Steam and the Xbox platform; in a conspicuously rose-colored version of 1986 small-town Oregon, a woman named Meredith spends two weeks on shift as a mail carrier.
White Thorn’s other games shown at PAX include Apico, a beekeeping simulator; Princess Farmer, a match-3 puzzle/RPG; and Wytchwood, where you play as the mysterious old witch in the woods in a fantasy world based off of fairytales.