The 10 Best Indie Games of PAX East 2019

Indies are where the ideas are, so here are some of the best and most unique titles of PAX East 2019.

Independent developers have a presence at many of the shows we attend here at USG, including the Game Developers Conference and E3, but none put the spotlight on indies like PAX does. A grand chunk of the expo hall at any PAX is simply a sea of indie developers showing off their games to the community. My favorite part of every PAX I've been to is taking my indie discovery walk. It's hard to make a mark online, but in person, a developer has a chance to catch your eye as you walk by.

Here are 10 indie games that pulled me in and convinced me to play them. PAX demos tend to be pretty short, but the right concept or look can definitely make an impact. These games left a mark on my mental list, and I'm going to be watching their progress in the future. And you should too.

As a small note, there are a number of games that would have gotten on this list that I already highlighted for PAX South. Games like Katana Zero, Boyfriend Dungeon, and Streets of Rage 4 are still looking great, but I want this list to offer a showcase for some other titles.

Star Renegades

Platforms: PC
Release Date: 2020

You may have missed all of the games in the Halcyon 6 series, which were RPGs based around starship combat. They were a bit of turn-based RPG, a dash of XCOM, and some FTL for good measure. They're definitely worth trying, and you can pick up Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander on Nintendo Switch or Steam is you want to see what it's all about.

Star Renegades trades in the starships and goofy Star Trek-style tone for a roguelike RPG with a crack squad of revolutionaries. You'll lead your squad across a world controlled by an unnamed evil empire. Your squad has limited resources and time to mount your counter-attack, so you're forced to make several tactical decisions. Do you take one path to soften up a fortress, only to put a civilization settlement in danger? Do you diverge to gather more resources, knowing the next battle is a punishing one? The game is underpinned by a Grandia-style combat system with a turn timeline; there are several boosts and interrupts to manage the space you and your opponents occupy on that timeline. Star Renegades isn't an easy game either, with the final fight of the demo testing my skills and ultimately killing my squad.

What made it stand out to me was the excellent pixel art and animation. Good pixel art is one thing, but the animation work in Star Renegades is fantastic: the bosses are big and full of magically delicious frames. The lone teaser trailer that's out there doesn't aptly capture all the fantastic animation in Star Renegades, but there are a number of GIFs available on the official site. It's currently scheduled for 2020 on Steam, but there's no indication of targeting other platforms yet.

Creature in the Well

Platforms: PC, Switch
Release Date: Summer 2019

Sometimes the most unique games are found in the intersection between two existing ideas. What would happen if you merged top-down action-adventure (like the classic Legend of Zelda games) with pinball, and then sprinkled a little bullet hell-style dodging on top of that? Well, you'd end up with a meal that looks like Creature in the Well.

You play as a lone robot that's looking to restore power to an ancient machine to push back a sandstorm. The only problem is there's a giant creature blocking your path, and thousands of little minions guarding the creature. You have to use your weapons to manipulate energy orbs; some weapons pull orbs in, others send them flying in various arcs and trajectories. The dungeon-based puzzles tend to require you to hit pinball machine-like targets around a room in order to proceed. Likewise, you'll want to use those balls to takedown enemies while dodging their screen-covering attack in neon orange.

Creature in the Well is a fresh concept that I saw first during the last Nindies Showcase, so I was glad to get a chance to play it at PAX East. With just a little practice, I was flinging balls around like a pro. I, for one, am looking forward to tackling the final version on PC and Nintendo Switch this summer.

Project Witchstone

Platforms: PC
Release Date: TBD

Project Witchstone is a very early game, with the version shown at PAX East 2019 being a pre-production build. It had limited assets, a single town, and dialog text that was clearly placeholder. Despite that, this title from the folks that brought you Omensight and Stories: The Path of Destinies is headed in the right direction.

Combat and presentation is similar to Divinity: Original Sin, but where that game relies on systemic combat elements and a deep narrative, Witchstone is looking to build more of sandbox. Developer Spearhead Games wants players to craft their own adventures in the style of Dungeons and Dragons. (There's even dice-based attacks and weapon damage.)

In the demo town, I found a suspected thief in a room. I'll brook no thieves outside of myself, so I promptly murdered him. Unfortunately, I missed the guard in the corner of the room, so I had to murder him too. Thing is, no one else heard my bloody hacking, so I quietly climbed out the back window. Later in my demo, I was told that the crime was discovered, but it wasn't quite pinned on me yet. A developer told me that the plan is to allow for misdirection too, like planting evidence to point the crime towards someone else.

Witchstone wants to be a freeform game, where you can rise up as a hero, or take over a town as a cruel gangster. These are big promises, and what I played at PAX East was compelling so far. Witchstone is coming to Kickstarter sometime this year, so there's no clear release date at this point.

Cyber Shadow

Platforms: PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: TBD

Kat already talked about Cyber Shadow, the new title from a one-man development team being published by Yacht Club Games. (There is a composer, so technically two-man team.) The ninja protagonist, 8-bit style graphics, and weapons may make players think of Ninja Gaiden, but I found Cyber Shadow more recalled games like Shatterhand and Contra.

Regardless, Cyber Shadow plays very well, offering a straightforward, precise action experience. Over the course of the demo, I unlocked several new moves like a flaming uppercut and downstab, fought a boss, and showed off my platforming prowess. Cyber Shadow wasn't made by Yacht Club Games, but like Shovel Knight, it shows a clear understanding of what made those 8-bit action games great.

Vambrace: Cold Soul

Platforms: PC
Release Date: April 25

Platforms: Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: Q3 2019

Visually, the easiest way to describe this game is Anime Darkest Dungeon. You build a party of four soldiers of various types, and head into cursed regions that others dare not tread. It's up to you to survive your dungeon runs, where one wrong move can lead to a party wipe; you can basically travel until you run out of resources spread across certain meters. It's a roguelike too, where you bash your head against unknown odds.

There's more here though. Vambrace sports an entire town for players to explore, with visual novel-like conversations with townsfolk. The game also wants to focus on progression that doesn't just involve grinding. And there's a whole host of fantasy races and classes to draw your party from, giving Vambrace a more interesting visual palette to pull from. I love Darkest Dungeon, so something in the same vein with a few tweaks is right up my alley. Vambrace: Coul Soul is coming to PC first, with a subsequent console release later in the year.

Phogs

Platforms: TBD
Release Date: 2019

Ahhhhhhhhhhh! Phogs is so goddamn cute! You play as… two dog heads that are attached to another by a long, stretchy body? Yeah, I know that sounds weird and horrific, but it's actually pretty cute. You control each dog head with a different analog stick—or two controllers if you're playing with a friend—and drag around objects in physics puzzles to move forward and bring joy to the lives of various creatures.

And that's it. It's not all that deep, but it's pretty adorable. The Phogs booth at PAX East had the most kids I've seen at any booth on the show floor, so that's something. Phogs is coming to "multiple platforms" sometime in 2019.

Quantum League

Platforms: PC
Release Date: TBD

Quantum League is an arena shooter played across 12 second rounds. Yes, that seems short, but it's necessary, because Quantum League plays with time. There are a total of three rounds, where you end up playing with your past self. You might die in round one, but if you remove the obstacle or kill the player that led to your death, then the first round's version of you returns to life.

Quantum League is a 1v1 game, where both players are trying to control a single location. With the time bending mechanic, a lot of tactically options are thrown in. Do you die on purpose in the first round, and take your ghostly self to the control spot, only to save that first life in the third round? Playing Quantum League requires a different thought process than most first-person shooters, but you'll figure out all the possibilities inherent within by playing a single round.

NGD Studios was giving out early access codes at PAX East, but the game currently has no release date on PC.

Super Crush K.O.

Platforms: PC, Switch
Release Date: 2019

The folks behind Graceful Explosion Machine are back with a new title! Their first game was a pure shooter, but Super Crush K.O. seeks to find the middle ground between shooter and brawler. A young woman with fists of steel is trying to save her kitten (and the world) from an AI apocalypse.

Super Crush K.O. works like a stylish action game, switching up between uppercuts, air dashes, and shooting in encounters as you push up your score and rank. Super Crush K.O. is a brightly-colored fun fest and it's surprisingly easy to get in the groove on your way to an S-rank. It's a lot lighter that the Devil May Crys of the world, feeling somewhat like last year's Battle Chef Brigade.

Treachery in Beatdown City

Platforms: PC, Switch
Release Date: 2019

Treachery in Beatdown City is a throwback to the 8-bit brawlers of old like Double Dragon and River City Ransom. The big twist on the formula is a tactical combat system; yes, you can just punch enemies or hit them with metal pipes, but that's not really the best way forward. Instead, you gain FP as you move around the battlefield, which you can then spend on strikes and grapples to hurt your enemy. These moves hits single or multiple targets and can impart certain status effects; you'll want to string moves together to form devastating combos. It's somewhere in-between the VATS combat of the modern Fallout games and a beat-em-up.

You have three characters to switch between, each with a different focus in terms of combat style. The entire demo for Treachery in Beatdown City is backed up by an ironic form of humor, with some references to the current world we live in. (The game's story kicks off when President Orama is kidnapped.) It's looking like it'll be an intriguing fisticuffs adventure when it comes out on Steam and Nintendo Switch in 2019.

Afterparty

Platforms: PC
Release Date: 2019

From the folks who brought you Oxenfree, a supernatural thriller about youth, comes something completely different. You play as Milo and Lola, two college students who died just after graduation. Now they're in hell, but there's a way out if you can drink Satan under the table. In order to make that happen, the pair have to bar crawl across Hell to reach Satan's megaparty and outdrink the Devil.

The spin on Afterparty is that the drinks the demons serve you at the many bars around the city unlock other facets of your personality. You'll want to pick the right drink to navigate you through conversations on your journey. The developer is promising several paths and endings to the game, and Afterparty is jamming with a look that reminds me of the late 90s LucasArts adventure games. If Oxenfree was about high-school, then Afterparty is about college life. This was one of my favorite games at PAX East 2019 and I'll have a further preview going up on the site later this week.

Honorable Mentions

There are a few titles I want to highlight that aren't indies, but they are from independent developers that aren't owned by large publishers. They have far more resources than your average indie, so it's hard to find a good spot to put them in. The current moniker is "Triple I", but the jury is still out on that one.

Divinity: Fallen Heroes

Platforms: PC
Release Date: TBD

I've already written all about my time with Divinity: Fallen Heroes, but I think it deserves a shout out here. Larian Studios is partnering with Logic Artists to build a game that takes Divinity: Original Sin 2's engine and basic combat, and builds something a little more tactical. It's Larian's second shot at a style of game it tried with Divinity: Dragon Commander back in 2013. Fallen Heroes is heavily rooted in the world of Original Sin 2, so if you loved that, you might want to give this a spin.

Samurai Shodown

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One
Release Date: 2019

Platforms: Switch
Release Date: Q4 2019

Platforms: PC
Release Date: TBD

Another classic from the SNK vaults returns! The developer moved forward into a new era with King of Fighters 14, a solidly designed fighter that offered a ton of characters. (50 characters at launch, 58 in total.) SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy was a bit of a misstep, but it looks like SNK is just plowing forward. Samurai Shodown is a lovely sequel, using the same 3D model techniques used for King of Fighters 14 to revive the weapon-based fighter. It feels like Samurai Shodown, only focused more around punishing openings in an opponent's guard. SNK has already revealed a bunch of returning characters and one new fighter for this reboot. I'm ready for the misspelled shodown, especially since it's taking one of the main slots at Evo 2019.

Disclosure: USgamer is part of Gamer Network, which is owned by ReedPOP, the organizers of the PAX events including PAX West.

Tagged with Indie, Opinions, PAX East 2019, PC, Switch, Xbox One.

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