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Some PAX Prime 2015 Impressions

Alternatively titled "Long Shadows, Cyberspace, and Giant Robots: A Diary of Dope Shit I Saw."

Highlight of PAX: Draining the power of the UnderDraker by stealing and spiking his precious urn on the ground.
Highlight of PAX: Draining the power of the UnderDraker by stealing and spiking his precious urn on the ground.

After a week at the PAX Prime convention in Seattle, where I checked out games, spoke on panels, and hung out with friends old and new, I’m finally back in New York. While it would be easy to slip into full post-convention recovery mode, I’ve actually been incredibly energized by a desire to share my thoughts on some of the games I saw and played over the last week.

Though there were a ton of major, upcoming AAA releases at the show, I spent most of my time investigating games from smaller teams or playing demos of projects that I just wouldn’t be able to get my hands on anytime soon. I also just don’t have the time or space to give details on every single game I saw, so just assume that if I’m mentioning a thing here, it’s because I think it’s pretty rad.

A Consensual Hallucination

For better and worse, I feel like 2015 has been dominated by one long, breathless conversation about virtual reality. While I’d experienced the Oculus Rift back at E3, it was only my experiences this week that shifted me over from ‘hopeful, if skeptical’ to “cautiously optimistic.’ Ironically, the thing that first convinced me that VR would be able to do more than provide Wii Sports-style novelty was the moment my Oculus Touch demo glitched out. I discussed this experience towards the beginning of our Saturday Night panel, but for those weren't there: I was left standing in a virtual grey-space, staring at the demo-runner's out-of-sync avatar as he struggled to reboot the system. Instead of the childlike glee he'd had during the demo he'd just given Alex, he was worried and unsure. I just stood there, watching a digital representation of another person trying to take stock of his virtual surroundings, unable to see me. The atmosphere was creepy and strangely heavy, and I left excited to see what sort of stories talented game makers are able to tell in this format.

I got one example of VR storytelling a few days later, when I tried out Call of the Starseed, a game for the Valve-backed HTC Vive VR device. Starseed is a first person exploration game that takes cues from 80s fantasy-adventure films like The Goonies. Starseed puts the player in detailed, moody locations and then asks them to solve puzzles with inventory items and objects in the environment. The Vive’s controllers are tall, Playstation Move-like wands, and they don't stand up next to the Oculus Touch’s comfortable fit.

"Blinking" from one location to the next is incredibly intuitive, and perfect for games that focus on slow exploration.

But Call of the Starseed offered something that the Oculus demo hadn’t: A potential solution for movement in (slow-paced) VR games. The player can walk around in a bounding box by moving around in real life. To travel further distances, they look at a spot in the distance and press a button to teleport there, setting up a new box to move around in. It’s a surprisingly smooth motion that works well for this sort of adventure game, though action titles will probably need a different solution. I’ll have an interview with Call of the Starseed creative director Denny Unger up on the Giant Bomb Presents podcast feed soon!

(I had a third virtual reality experience, too, but this one didn’t involve a headset. Nina Freeman’s Cibele was really the surprise of the show for me. It didn’t require me to wear a fancy headset to bring me into different time and place. Cibele takes me back so clearly to the time I spent on the internet as a teenager, using games as a way to meet people and to figure out who I was and what I cared about. Interested? Check out this interview with Nina that I recorded moments after finishing the demo!)

Walking Tanks

Yeah, that's right. I snuck a photo of some real ass hex tiles onto Giant Bomb Dot Com.
Yeah, that's right. I snuck a photo of some real ass hex tiles onto Giant Bomb Dot Com.

Speaking of nostalgia, it’s no secret that I have a long-running love of giant robots. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that I budgeted enough time to check out four different mech games.

  • Mech Deck: On Drew’s recommendation, I sought this out in the Indie Megabooth’s tabletop section. It’s a short, two to four player tactical combat game that combines a hex-based map, 3D-printed mechs, unique character abilities, and a deck of cards that give you special actions (and reactions) which can turn the tide of a fight. Mechs are built from a combination of modular pieces which can be customized or drafted at the start of the game to switch things up across multiple sessions. My bipedal, metal giant used a mortar to shell enemies at long distances, and then used a whip-like claw to drag in enemies that got too close, only to then bash them away with a super-fist. It was pretty dope. The designers just launched the game’s Kickstarter campaign, and the game should be available next fall.
  • Galak-Z Mobile Variant: The upcoming re-release of Galak-Z for phones and tablets works surprisingly well. Engine lights glow bright on the mobile screen, the game didn’t stutter any more than it did on the PS4. While the controls are a little wonky, it’s still impressive to see this console game running on a phone. It’s also a sharp reminder that however much I love my Vita, the system’s hardware limitations have contributed to the platform’s thin catalog.
  • Brigador: This is a game I’ve been waiting for ever since the striking reveal trailer got my blood pumping last year. Brigador’s environments are oppressive: Claustrophobic rows of scrap metal, warehouses, and the occasional monument barely lit by distant neon. Between the pounding electronic music, the Desert Strike-style gameplay, and hard-as-sin difficulty, Brigador feels torn from an alternate universe where we’re all playing a high-powered successor to the Sega Genesis. Which is pretty okay by me.
  • Battletech: Finally, I got a chance to talk to some folks at Harebrained Schemes about their upcoming Battletech game. Nothing to show for it yet, but the goal is to provide light story telling and intense tactical combat, something of an inverse from the studio's recent Shadowrun games. You'll be leading a four-member "lance" of mechs, and like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, losing your comrades is a real threat. Battletech will also be hitting Kickstarter later this month.

Harebrained had more than just flyers for Battletech on hand, though...

Procedural Death Labyrinths

Apparently the number one way to impress me at PAX was to be moody as fuck.
Apparently the number one way to impress me at PAX was to be moody as fuck.

We're well into the era of "What if Dark Souls but..." and while there were actually a ton of games at the show that drew inspiration from the franchise, two stuck out to me.

The first is Necropolis, also by Harebrained Schemes. Necropolis is a third-person roguelike that has a ton of style--everything has sharp edges and dark, flat shading. Like the Chalice Dungeons of Bloodborne, Necropolis offers an endless supply of procedurally generated dungeon levels to go through, tasking the player with climbing down through an underground pyramid at the behest of the archmage buried in its depths. The pyramid is filled with enemies from multiple factions who fight each other as often as they turn on you, and once they do, the combat is fast paced and smooth, which took me by surprise since Necropolis is the studio's first step away from their turn based/tactical roots.

As the show came to a close, I was fleeing from strange creatures, trying to bandage a bloody and dripping wound, and narrowly avoiding tripwires and spike traps. Okay, fine, I was actually seated on a tiny chair in the Indie Megabooth playing Capy's Below, but that game drew me right in. Like Necropolis, Below sets you as an explorer of mysterious dungeon that shifts around after every death. But unlike Necropolis, Below has a streak of minimalism in presentation and design that underscores the game's feeling of dread and loneliness. The camera is a sort of distant, bird's eye view that puts as much focus on the ruins around the player as it does on the player itself. Combat is quick and deadly--a few good hits will leave you reeling. The game's menu--a collection of stark white lines and shapes--doesn't give information about weapon strength or the healing abilities of your items. You'll have to figure those out for yourself.

And the winner is...

Ultimate Chicken Horse is basically real time, competitive Mario Maker.
Ultimate Chicken Horse is basically real time, competitive Mario Maker.

Like I said at the start, I saw a ton of other things that were cool: Masquerada, a stylish RPG filled with living books, magical masks, and political questions grounded in the ones we still ask ourselves today; Wattam, which was as wacky and endearing as Alex said it would be; Moon Hunters, a co-op RPG with a unique setting that uses Yawhg-style vignettes to define your character's traits; Ultimate Chicken Horse, which... listen, I cannot wait to play Ultimate Chicken Horse, y'all.

But the coolest thing I got to see at PAX Prime 2015 was: You.

I'm not kidding! I'm not. So many of you turned up for our panels, talked to us on the show floor, and voiced your appreciation for what we do. This was the first chance I had to meet fans since joining the site back in June, and it was a pleasure. I can't wait to meet more of you in the future!

So if you're one of the many people who made it out to the show, thanks! And hey, what was your favorite thing at the show? While you're at it: Of the things I mentioned above, which are you interested in hearing more about? Lemme know and I'll talk a bit about it on the Beastcast this week!