In the ever-frozen land south of here, but north of other places, there is a town called Boston. And in this town, once at the beginning of the growing season, they sacrifice a fresh-born video game to the eldest god, in order to ensure a quick end to the winter season, and a bountiful harvest.
But before that sacrifice can be made, the city of Boston comes together at the Penny Arcade Expo East in order to determine which is the best video game that can be offered to Grayth'rll , emperor of kings. Here are just a few of the games at this year's culling, and our thoughts on their standings in the running.
Enter the Gungeon:
We are getting to a point where I am sick and tired of roguelikes, and I swear if you told me five years ago that I'd be saying that, I would have laughed in your face. Somehow, over the last couple of years, every indie game switched from a side-scrolling puzzle platformer (the Braid-like, if you will) to a top-down rougelike. Enter the Gungeon circa-2010 would have been a pretty standard twin-stick shooter. Now, it's some sort of crazy hybrid between Borderlands, the Legend of Zelda, and, of course, Rogue.
Gungeon isn't shy about its influences either. Levels are composed of "handcrafted" rooms, stitched together at relative random by an algorithim, much like Binding of Isaac. Combat is twin stick shooting with dodge rolls and crazy weapon drops, much like in Borderlands, and plenty of enemies are ripped straight out of the D&D monster manual and given a coat of paint that'd make the NRA proud. For example, one of the game's booses is the Beholster, a traditional Beholder, but with guns on each tentacle instead of eyes.
The game isn't much deeper than that. Shoot or be shot, manage your resources, and hope for good gun drops. It's neat, but low-impact, though there are some interesting design decisions in there. Guns drop far more often than ammo, meaning you'll have to carefully conserve shots while dodging the bullet-hell-esque patterns the game throws at you. Gungeon also has an interesting story concept, centred on a gun that can shoot time, with the player characters slowly revealing the past they want erased over the course of multiplay playthroughs. Overall, Gungeon seems well-crafted, I just wish it tried to diverge from the road most travelled a little more.
On the complete OTHER end of the spectrum from Gungeon, there's Titan Souls, a game that wears its influences on a very similar place on its sleeve, but draws from them very differently.
Titan Souls is a cross between Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus. It's a game of only bosses, fast deaths, and one hit-KOs. It's tense, it's sharp, and most of all, it's very deliberately crafted. Each boss is very different from the others, with their own unique trick and weakness, making each fight as much about your own skills and controlling your character as it is about quick thinking and high-speed puzzle solving. It's designed to feel like the last minutes of a boss fight, when everything can end with one hit from either side, and the tension is deafening.
What's interesting is that there aren't a lot of games inspired directly by Dark Souls' play rythym, fewer are inspired by Shadow of the Colossus's actual mechanics. Usually it gows the other way around. Games love to ape Shadow's atmosphere, while others take the harsh penalties and high difficult from Dark Souls. For a game that owes its existence (and it's name) to two other games, it's crazy how refreshing Titan Souls feels. It's a game all its own, and that's a really cool thing these days.
I wish I could tell you what Va11halla is. It's a bartending simulator, yeah. It's also a visual novel, with heavy inspiration from the PC-88 and Phoenix Wright. It's set in some sort of crazy cyborg post-apocalypse, and according to the game's PR, there are racist corgis hanging around.
Also according to the game's PR, the developers intend it to be about the current political situation in Venezuela, and that's where they lose me. It's not that the game can't be about that, it's just that it's hard to get it from just the first of 20 in-game days. What I can see about the game right now, is that it replaces genre-standard conversation options with prompts to mix drinks, and depending on how you fulfill orders (right drink, wrong drink, right drink made poorly, etcetera), characters react to you differently. It doesn't necessarily actually offer any more choice than usual, but it creates a powerful illusion of agency over this world. Hopefully, the game finds some interesting ways to incorporate that as it explains what the heck it is, because right now, it doesn't look like much beyond a great concept, and a cool narrative trick.
Ladykiller in a Bind:
It's a weird day for games coming in twos, but Ladykiller in a Bind (or: My brother forced me to crossdress as him and now I have to deal with a geeky stalker and a domme beauty who want me in a bind) is another visual novel we played today, and also happens to be doing interesting things with the way narrative options are presented in that genre's framework.
Ladykiller's dialogue sections allow you to interject with conversation options as the conversation continues. As you advance the dialogue, options disappear, and sometimes new ones take their place. Effectively, you're being given a more active role in conversations. Each dialogue option also carries the risk of arousing suspicion that you aren't actually the person you're pretending to be, but sometimes, not talking at all during a conversation could rack up the suspicion just as much. Plus, not talking at all means you'll never get to date-slash-sleep with the dozens of animes wandering this cruise ship you're all stuck on, and why would you ever choose to ignore that option.
Ladykiller is confident. It's sexy, it's clever, and most of all, it's one of the few non-passive visual novels I've ever played, which is probably fitting, considering its kink-heavy demo. It's really great to see a game take big steps forward in a genre that has been so stagnant for so long, and I really can't wait to see where else Ladykiller goes.
Loud on Planet X:
Loud on Planet X isn't a super crazy concept. It's a tower defense rythym game. Aleins attack your band and you have to tap them to the beat of the song in order to drive them back. It's a pretty simple combination of very popular genres, but the mechanics of the game aren't what's so great about it.
Planet X features bands like Fucked Up and Teegan and Sara, indie stuff that never really made its way to Rock Band DLC. The game has you play as the actual band when you play their song, and enemies appear according to the beat, making the whole thing feel lke this careful, hand-made experience. It's curated and carefully designed, much like the Long Winter event series in Toronto it came out of. It's a simple, fun game, with a ton of heart and some great design, and it might be one of the most fun games I played at PAX.
I can't figure out how to explain Lovely Planet. I'm pretty sure it's a shooter, but aesthetically, it's about the farthest thing from an FPS you could possibly be. It's heavily inspired by Japanese minimalism and surrealism, with specific influences from Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, a Japanese pop singer, and Katamari Damacy, a game about pleasing your god-dad by rolling humans into a ball. Meanwhile, Lovely Planet features a flower gun that shoots menacing red blocks while a chipper pop theme song loops in the background forever.
Lovely Planet is part of a trend I've been calling the "Super-Meat-Boy-ification" of games. Dying instantly sends you back to the start of a level, without any other penalty. Thus, levels are designed to be short, hard, and full of gotcha moments that come off as funny because you can get back into the level so quickly. It's a fun design concept, and almost works better for an FPS than it did for a platformer. The only issue is that in Meat Boy, every death was your own fault because the controls were tight and perfectly crafted. Meanwhile, Lovely Planet's controls are pretty loose and floaty. It's a little more frustrating than it needs to be, though I have to wonder if better controls would make the game easier. It's hard to say, but for now, it's a twitch shooter with great aesthetics, though maybe not the best feel.