Another year, another PAX come and gone through Boston. This year came with a few big announcements, but my favorite part of the con, as always, was the massive collection of indie games. Here are five of my personal favorites from the show floor:
1. Night Call
If you like: The Red Strings Club, L.A. Noire, Return of the Obra Dinn
Paris. Street level. Night. A taxi driver scans the sparse sidewalks for fares, lost souls in need of a destination. His eyes meet a hand, then eyes, of a man caught in the rain. The sound of shaking water from leather is shortly followed by the *thunk* of the car door slamming shut.
The driver feels the passenger’s dead gaze on his back. Could this be him?
Night Call is a modern noir game where you play as a taxi driver solving the case of a serial killer on the loose in the streets of Paris. After narrowly escaping death at the hands of the killer, the police blackmail you into working as an informant. Your job is simple: Dig for clues. Solve the case. Through conversations with over 70 unique passengers, you’ll try to uncover the darkest secrets in the city, and clear your own name in the process. The game features branching dialogue options, randomized final killer, and, of course, a murder board for all your detective needs.
I was immediately drawn in by Night Call as a fan of narrative investigation games, and it absolutely delivered. During the 15-minute demo, I had conversations with 3 passengers. The first, with the hard-line female cop whom you’re forced to work for, had me invested in my character in no time. She prods at your family history, your record, and the anti-islamic sentiment that’s become all too common in France. It evoked helplessness, fear, and frustration — to the point where I chose the the “stay silent” dialogue option more than once because it simply felt paralyzing.
The other conversations were with a womanizing creep who preyed at airports, and a programmer/armchair philosopher convinced that we were living in a simulation. Both of these passengers brought out interesting stories about themselves, but also brought out more about the protagonist, and hinted at the greater mystery at play. The game developer I spoke with talked with passion about his inspirations for the game, and the consultants he worked with to ensure it was representative of his native Paris’s diverse inhabitants, and it shows in the writing. All of it comes together to weave a wonderful web of dubious denizens, and I can’t wait to unravel it all.
2. Boyfriend Dungeon
If you like: Dream Daddy, Monster Prom, Bastion
You ever wanted to smooch a sword? Tired of all the boring dating sims where all you do is talk to other humans, or vampires, or highly-intelligent pigeons, without any action? Then do I have the game for you! Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon-crawler meets dating sim where your weapons magically transform into hotties for you to date. If that’s not enough, it also features an awesomely diverse cast, including POC, trans, and nonbinary romanceable characters.
The demo I played was about what I expected — flirty conversations with your weapons and a few other denizens of the city, followed by some slashing. As with most dating sims, good writing and character art is key, and Boyfriend Dungeon has both. Even though it was a brief demo, I got a solid glimpse at the personalities (and abs) of Sunder and Valeria, just enough that I really want to get to know them more. I talked with Sunder in the nightclub he owns downtown, and received a word of warning from a friend of his not to get involved. Ever the risk taker, I danced the night away with him, and took him the next day to “The Dunj” to put our relationship to the test.
The isometric dungeon crawling is similar to a lot of others in the genre, but fluid and enjoyable nonetheless. I’m still not sure how I feel about the difference in art style between the character portraits and the mini sprites, but I don’t think it detracts from the gameplay at the very least. What I enjoyed most about the Dunj experience, though, was how it connected with your relationship with the weapons. Clearing baddies helps build trust between you, but there are also some rooms where you can have a brief interlude, chatting with your partner about the location, your relationship, or anything in between. And as much as fighting together can help you grow closer, growing closer also helps you to fight. I’m excited to see how this experience system develops, and what stories can be told through romance and rending alike.
3. Sayonara Wild Hearts
If you like: Super Hexagon, Beat Saber, The Sonic Franchise, Transistor
Neon streets, stylish biker gangs, and exciting music are the cornerstones of the latest game from Annapurna Interactive. The publisher has a reputation for bringing forward visually stunning games like Journey, and Sayonara Wild Hearts is no exception. With tarot-inspired characters and gangs, you take on the role of “The Fool”, driving fast and breaking hearts in a futuristic city. The gameplay itself is deceivingly simple — it’s primarily a runner with a few rhythm game-like elements. But beyond that, the self described “pop album video game” is a holistic melding of music, art and mechanics that come together to create an entrancing experience.
If there was one game that absolutely surprised me at PAX East this year, it was Sayonara Wild Hearts. From the instant I put on a pair of headphones and hit start, I was in it. Every curve, jump, and collectible was satisfying. At first, I thought the runner elements would get tiring over time, but the game kept surprising me with new mechanics — suddenly I was chasing another bike, jumping over bullets, and fighting back with style. The game wasn’t particularly challenging from what I played, but I didn’t need it to be either. It was fun just to go along for the ride. I highly recommend watching the trailer for a glimpse at the full experience the game has to offer.
If you like: Oxenfree, Night in the Woods, The Red Strings Club
Look, we’ve all been there. The party is bumpin, the music is loud, and one more shot sounds like a great idea… until you wake up feeling like hell. Or, as in the case of Afterparty, you wake up in hell. In the latest game from the makers of Oxenfree, you play as two best friends, Milo and Lola, who find themselves as in an underworld that’s more Don Julio than it is Dante’s Inferno. Together, they’ll have to drink their way out of hell, solving puzzles and loosening lips with some liquid refreshment.
I’m a fan of unique narratives, and Afterparty is nothing if not original. I played a short demo on the show floor and majorly enjoyed the punchy humor and dynamic between the protagonists. The game features branching dialogue options with full voice acting, introducing a world of drunken demons and wild spirits with casual ease. There are also mechanics surrounding alcohol, where certain drinks will unlock new options — for instance, one drink let me confidently tell a demon to fuck off and leave my friend alone. I assume this was just the tip of what different drinks can do, and we’re sure to see some interesting scenes from the bottom of a glass.
5. World of Horror
If you like: Stories Untold, SCP: Containment Breach, RPG Maker horror games
The End of the World is at hand. Students are disappearing from schools, Eldritch abominations are appearing on streetsides, and the Old Gods are rising once again. In this World of Horror, you stand little chance of stopping the tide of Doom swiftly taking your sleepy seaside town, but you might be able to postpone it. You play through a collection of stories of dooming, finding clues, navigating random encounters, and engaging in turn-based combat to fend off the darkness. What makes World of Horror isn’t grotesque realism or cheap jump scares, but the bone-chilling writing and unsettling artwork usually found only in creepypastas and manga like the works of Junji Ito.
World of Horror was by far the creepiest game at PAX this year in my opinion, and I say that even with the Days Gone booth featuring literal zombies. The demo I played featured a student, investigating missing classmates and rumors of a woman with classroom scissors. The game is modular, meaning you have a choice of “cards” that determine whether certain elements appear in the game, though I couldn’t fully see the implications of that in my brief time with it. Because it was a demo, it skipped some of the prologue, meaning I was dropped in the middle of the school, alone, at night, with no one but ghosts around me. I was presented with danger at every turn — a bathroom stall creaks open, do you investigate, shut it, or leave? Depending on your choice, there may be a dice roll, modified by your stats, to see what happens next.
If you’re not careful (and likely even if you are), you’ll end up in combat with a horrifying creature. You have a few actions for attacking and casting spells to attempt to fend it off without dying or losing your sanity. The animations for the enemies change, contorting and menacing as you fight, building stress more than one would expect from a turn based system. The combat is interesting and each enemy is unique and poses new, terrible threats. Overall, the combat feeds well into the extensively creepy experience, and the branching paths makes for a ton of content I can’t wait to tremble in fear of.