More and more, the place to be at any PAX is the Indie Megabooth, where developers are given an opportunity to meet fans and show their wares directly to the public. It's here that many of the medium's best and freshest ideas can be found, with the added benefit being that developers are always eager to speak candidly about their game.
This year, many of the best games in the Indie Megabooth have an RPG or strategy bent to them, reflecting the recent rise in popularity of Dark Souls, XCOM, and games like them. But of course, there were plenty of other great ideas on hand as well, from psychological horror to overhead shooters. After spending a day touring the booth, here's what jumped out at us.
Our Favorite Game in the Indie Megabooth Was...
Darkest Dungeon: The art style is what immediately jumps out at you. Each of the characters are detailed and extremely interesting to look at, and their attacks are impactful without being overly elaborate. It's not all looks, though. Darkest Dungeon's adventuring is really interesting in the way that it opts to focus on the stress of survival over combat (though combat is pretty important to). With its stress meter, Darkest Dungeon does a good job of conveying the tension and fear associated with diving into the dark places of the earth where zombies, necromancers, and skeletons lurk. Neglect your party's psychological health, and bad things will usually happen.
Darkest Dungeon also has a relatively realistic take on healing, requiring the party to stop and camp out in a room to eat food, heal up, and possibly get some buffs (though it's possible to be ambushed while camping, so be careful). Once in combat, much of the strategy is predicated on managing positioning and turns, with status effects being particularly important. I'm really fascinated to see where Red Hook takes this concept next, particularly since they're apparently including an XCOM-like strategic elements as well in the form of a village that serves as a base. Of all the games I saw in the Indie Megabooth, Darkest Dungeon's depth and polish was easily the most impressive. - Kat
Even though Darkest Dungeon comes from Canadian developer Red Hook, this dungeon crawler's turn-based battle system would feel right at home in a complex, Japanese-developed RPG. And that's by no means an insult: Every decision made in Darkest Dungeon's battles requires the consideration of several shifting variables, which is something I associate more with games in the style of Crimson Shroud and the Shin Megami Tensei series. Darkest Dungeon places an emphasis on party micromanagement, as the stress of constantly staring down death can seriously impede your heroes' progress. If your party members reach their breaking point before you can soothe their nerves, they'll refuse to cooperate in battle, and generally make your life a living hell until their anxieties fade away. Red Hook wraps all of these these interesting elements in a beautiful 2D interface, with great character art resembling that of Hellboy's Mike Mignola. Kat and I both walked away from the game in agreement that it's our favorite indie of the show, and we're both looking forward to when it hits Steam Early Access "soon." - Bob
The Best of the Rest
Salt and Sanctuary: Someone had to make a 2D take on Dark Souls, and Ska Studios did it first. That's not to say Salt and Sanctuary is a shameless ripoff, but it definitely has the same vibe as FromSoftware's famous series, from the demanding sense of challenge to its oppressive atmosphere. Even though Salt and Sanctuary doesn't make any attempt to mask its inspirations, the game still manages to feel unique, blending the platforming and exploration of the latter Castlevanias with the studied, brutal combat of Souls. And the "Sanctuary" in the title refers to an interesting element where players can construct a safe haven and populate it with helpful citizens who offer varying form of assistance. Based on the small portion I played, it's astounding to think all of this came together via Ska's tiny two-person team. - Bob
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime: The reaction I had when stepping up to Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime? "Great, someone's finally doing this." It's not the most fitting comparison, but whenever I watch shows featuring giant robots, I have to wonder how their pilots manage to pull off such amazing feats with incredibly basic controls at their fingertips. Similarly, Lovers tasks you with piloting a complicated spaceship, where even the most basic of actions require a mad scramble to pull off correctly. Instead of taking command of the ship itself, you're controlling the person controlling the ship, which requires some careful decisions, seeing as it takes time to physically travel from one panel to the next. Do you need to stop rocketing and fire the guns affixed to the bottom of your ship at incoming threats? Well, you'd better get up and walk to the proper controls, because your two-man crew is stretched mighty thin.
I didn't play Lovers in its intended form—with two players desperately trying to coordinate their efforts to destroy enemies and rescue space-bunnies—but my command-driven dog companion still sold the basic premise to me. Lovers takes one of the most basic video game ideas, one that traces its roots back to 1978's Space Invaders, and makes it unnecessarily complicated, though these complications make even the most basic of achievements feel incredibly rewarding. I'm definitely looking forward to couch co-op (Lovers' only brand of multiplayer), even if it might result in too many real-world arguments. Just hearing the interplay from the duo next to me had me anticipating the day I could risk the dangers of my solo flight with another human being at my side. - Bob
Neverending Nightmares: It's already gotten a good deal of press elsewhere, but it's worth calling out Neverending Nightmares again because it's one of the most disturbing pieces of psychological horror I've ever seen. Creator Matt Gilgenbach was on hand on the show floor, and he was extremely candid about his struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder, the desire to self-mutilate, and extreme depression, all of which is reflected in Neverending Nightmares' distinct art style (minimalist, with no color) and horrifying imagery. The self-mutiliation segments are particularly traumatic. Having dealt with extreme depression myself, I'm not sure that I'll have the stomach to go through Neverending Nightmares, but its nevertheless a useful reminder of how great video games can be for putting you in someone else's head space. I look forward to discussing Neverending Nightmares further when it arrives in September. - Kat>
Tharsis: It's easy to miss in the Megabooth, with the display consisting of just a couple iPads, but Tharsis is quietly a really interesting mobile game. In essence, it's a board game in which you move astronauts from room to room in an effort to address various problems that occur on a trip to Mars, from meteor strikes to fire. Problems are fixed by rolling dice, which can then be allocated to different systems to protect against computer dice rolls. It's simple but effective, and it works rather well for a tablet interface. Think of it as a substantially less frenetic, but still very tense, take on FTL. In the ned, I was actually quite taken by Tharsis, which is saying something considering that I don't normally play mobile games (well, not unless I have to). I will definitely be checking this one out when it arrives on iOS, Android, and Steam later this year. - Kat
Chroma Squad: This odd little tactical RPG by Behold Studios brings to mind the Hollywood minigame in Pokemon Black and White. The premise is that you're filming a Power Rangers-style sentai show, with the goal being to defeat enemies in a manner that is as flashy as possible. Members of the Chroma Squad can be equipped with prop swords and guns; and once they're filming a scene, they can transform into their alternate selves and use various special abilities. Chroma Squad's tactics are heavily based on positioning and movement, with the most efficient way to get across the map being to activate the "teamwork" power for one character and have the rest flip over him. If you properly surround a foe, usually a boss, then you can use a team attack to wipe him out. It's a cute take on the strategy genre, and one well work checking out when it hits the PlayStation 4 and Vita in early 2015. - Kat
And the Craziest Idea Goes to...
Upsilon Circuit: Oh, Upsilon Circuit. It's a really interesting idea, but it's hard to see how it will work long-term. Bob and I were drawn to because it was a fun-looking isometric action RPG; but then I killed Bob in the first five seconds of the game, and we learned that he wasn't allowed to play again. The developers even stamped our hands so we wouldn't have another go. The idea is that once you've competed, you're pushed into the audience, where you can help regular players you like with items and buffs. The problem is that Upsilon Circuit takes the idea just a bit too far. They're right to add an interactive element to the burgeoning streaming culture, but it's kind of crazy to keep someone from ever playing a game again after they die once. Developer Robot Loves Kitty has an interesting concept and a relatively fun game on their hands, but they might want to rethink their approach to replayability. - Kat