January is a weird time of year for the games industry. We're in the nebulous void between major release windows, and that void keeps expanding with each new delay. So while blockbusters and major publishers might dominate other shows, PAX South tends to give a greater spotlight to independent developers.
This year's PAX had a few games I've seen before, but in areas like the new PAX Together and Latinx Lounge, there were a number of indies that caught my eye. They're probably not on your radar—they weren't on mine, either—but they're very much worth following. A few are even coming out sooner than you might think.
Here are some of our picks for the most interesting indies San Antonio had to offer.
Dead Cells was a major breakout success, and developer Big Blue Bubble isn't pretending there aren't any similarities between that and the studio's new game, Foregone. It's a side-scrolling action game with brutally difficult enemies, requiring careful footwork and planning to dissect the best way to get through without dying.
Foregone is not a roguelike, however. It's a narratively driven game with a Diablo-style loot system where weapon drops will constantly buff up your arsenal or offer new playstyles. Every area is designed, rather than randomized. As you grow stronger, you'll be able to gradually overcome enemies who will rise in strength as well. Foregone seems like a good way for casual players to ease into the action, rather than butt their heads against bad rolls and knowledge barriers. Plus, the animation is absolutely gorgeous.
Foregone goes into early access on the Epic Games Store on Feb. 27, 2020.
An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs
You are an alien chasing your fiance across the galaxy. But as you journey from airport to airport, completing odd jobs and deciphering alien symbols to find your gate, you might notice: the airports are manned entirely by dogs.
These very good doggos come in all manner of occupation—Veteran Dog, Texas Dog, Doughnut Dog, Bribe Dog—but they are stock photos of dogs with more personality than you'd expect. My favorite, Cabinet Dog, is a dog who runs a cabinet store. He has the store simply because he has so many cabinets. He collects them, and he tries to sell them, but his fear is that if he sells some, he'll just get more.
"I am a mariner drowning in a sea of cabinets, and I have created this ocean, because I am Poseidon, and I don't know what this metaphor means anymore but I'm still talking," he laments. I pet him—because of course, you can pet every dog as many times as you want— before going to deliver my cabinet to the Bribe Dog and depart on my plane, where Anxious Parent Dog will tell me how nervous he is to see his two Very Large Sons, who he left behind years ago after saying he was going to get milk. There was already milk in the fridge. I like this game a lot.
An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs is in development for PC, but current builds are sent out to backers of developer Xalavier Nelson Jr's Patreon.
Have you ever lamented the lack of games hearkening back to the Japanese puzzle game scene of the '90s? Many other genres have seen a resurgence in recent years, but puzzle games like Money Puzzle Exchanger and Magical Drop are finally getting some loving nostalgia cast upon their legacies with Petal Crash.
In Petal Crash, you send colored blocks sliding along rows and columns to slam into other blocks, "detonating" them when combinations of two or more are created. When a bundle blows up, it sends nearby pieces sliding out in every direction. What you eventually create is a linking chain of sliding detonations. There are some fun variations to play alongside the standard play, including a puzzle mode and a tug-of-war versus mode. Who doesn't love sending garbage to their friends?
Petal Crash is coming to PC and smartphones sometime in 2020.
Imagine you have two blocks on either side of a plane. Every movement you make is mirrored, working in unison as you move across the surface, and when one falls into the plane, it sends the other flying into the air. Except, they can never touch. You have to always operate on opposite sides of a line, activating switches and maneuvering through obstacles with a synchronized pair of blocks that can never meet in the middle.
Deleveled's simplicity is what makes it appealing. It's a concept you see in action and immediately understand, yet the way its pair of developers have found to extrapolate and expand out from a simple set of rules is a blast. Each puzzle solved feels like a breakthrough, and there are great "a-ha" moments as more and more physics-bending mechanics are introduced.
Deleveled is coming in 2020 for Steam, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.
There are all kinds of heroes, but it takes a community to rebuild a village. That's the initial premise behind Garden Story, a cozy, charming top-down adventure that mixes a Stardew Valley aesthetic with Zelda mechanics. You traverse dungeons, fight monsters, collect items, and check off various to-do items on a request board to keep the renovations moving along.
But it's not simply a melting pot; as your protagonist Concord, a grape, ventures through the world and fixes up pieces of the town, villagers will assist you in various tasks and start to fill out the empty living spaces. While the art style, clever puzzles, and wonderful writing do a lot to carry the cheerful mood, it's building up a community of friends that feels the most rewarding.
Garden Story is coming to PC in spring 2020.
The Last Friend
It is the apocalypse, and all around you, the world has fallen to decay. Mutants and raiders are everywhere, and even worse, they're kidnapping the dogs. As Alpha, the one human friend to these dogs, you have one clear mission: save the good pups.
The Last Friend blends beat 'em up gameplay with three-lane tower defense, similar to Plants Vs. Zombies or The Last Stand. As you gather up dogs, you not only name and pet them, but gain new boons from them as well. Some might boost your equipment, making your towers more powerful, or they might buff up your personal fighting prowess. As you travel through the overworld, you'll work to uncover why the dogs are being abducted, as well as making sure each and every one of them is safe and sound.
It's a fun and surprisingly challenging take on the tower defense genre that nails a really great blend of pure action and careful planning. As the levels ramp up, you gain more equipment and tools, as does the enemy. Learning to balance static defenses and up-close pulverizing of enemies is a lot of fun, and the art style adds a lot of style and flair to the action.
The Last Friend is releasing in 2020 on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.