Dear Diary: Saturday and Sunday at PAX East 2016 I Played…

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Another PAX East has come to an end, but Mike “Gabe” Krahulik, Jerry “Tycho” Holkins, and game developers from around the world will return to Boston next year for more shenanigans. In the meantime, I’ve got an overflowing notebook and thoughts on more than a dozen titles from the final days of the expo.

My Saturday began with a playthrough of PAX East 2016’s biggest game… Cuphead. Maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to sit down with Studio MDHR’s side-scroller for a long time. Cuphead mixes 1930s-style animation with run-and-gun shooting that’s very reminiscent of Contra III: The Alien Wars. It’s great to see a developer revive this school of classic animation, and Cuphead is everything I’d hoped for… and then some.

I studied up on Cuphead beforehand, but my second stop on Saturday was a game I knew very little about. Thankfully, Proletariat’s Streamline is very easy to describe. One “Hunter” and eight “Runners” are dropped into an arena where the “Runners” have to collect glowing orbs while the “Hunter” hunts them. Using a third-person viewpoint, the game is more-or-less a 3D Pac-Man. It’s also very fun and, in a nice touch, Proletariat patterned the demo map after PAX East’s BCEC home.

Streamline is also part of Twitch’s “Stream First” initiative, and it’s tightly integrated with the livestreaming service. During the show, viewers on Proletariat’s channel could vote to influence the map by making a fog roll in, adding lava to the floor, forcing “Runners” to pogo, among others.

Another familiar, though slightly skewed, concept can be found in Capcom’s Umbrella Corps. Team-based shooters are pretty common nowadays, but the idea of “a team-based shooter WITH ZOMBIES” is still one that surely appeals to a lot of people. And Umbrella Corps is certainly appealing. The matches are quick and strategic play certainly pays off, and the presence of zombies added a little bit to the PAX East demo. I don’t know if it’ll have a long shelf life, but fans of the franchise will probably want to try it out in June.

Allow me to pivot back to Contra for a minute as I compare another game to the platformer. Black Forest’s Rogue Stormers is a side-scrolling shooter that drops players into a MetroidVania-style game with roguelike elements, and set in a castlepunk world. Contra was a big influence on a lot of games at the show, and the class-based characters, medieval theme, and four-player co-op of Rogue Stormers makes it stand out amongst the other imitators. The game is available to download through Steam now, and it’ll be released for the PS4 and Xbox One in the Fall.

As usual, Mega Man is another major influence on the PAX East crowd, and no game owes more of a debt to the Blue Bomber than Batterystaple’s 20XX. Borrowing liberally from Mega Man X, but improving on it in almost every way, 20XX’s procedurally-generated stages provide plenty of variety and the huge number of weapons will give players plenty of choice in how they dispatch their robotic foes.

Mega Man’s fingerprints are also all over Flinthook, a game that could do as much for robotic pirates as Shovel Knight did for warriors wielding gardening implements. In Flinthook, players will control an adorable little robotic space pirate as he travels from place to place using his grappling hook to collect booty. The 8-bit art style is charming and the grappling hook controls are incredibly precise. Hopefully, the final game will turn out as strong as the PAX East demo.

More precise control schemes can be found in Chasm and Mages of Mystralia, the latest projects backed by indie guru Dan Adelman.

Chasm is in development at Discord Games and it’s a MetroidVania that tilts much closer to the “Vania” half of that portmanteau. You might also sense a Zelda II vibe because the game’s high fantasy elements promise a lot of similar swordplay and magic. Each room in Chasm will be hand-built by the developers, and procedurally stitched together to create a new world map every time. Chasm should be out by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Mages of Mystralia is in the works at Borealys Games, though it doesn’t currently have a release date. Riffing on Zelda’s more traditional overhead view, Mages of Mystralia is the story of a young girl who learns about her magical heritage and then Harry Potters her way through the world, using a grid-like system to build spells using millions of different combination. Still very early in development, Mages of Mystralia shows promise.

The promise of the mystical is also present in Perception, my first stop on Sunday. Developed by The Deep End Games, which was formed by several former members of Irrational, Perception follows Cassie, a blind woman searching for an explanation for the horrible dreams she’s been having. Her quest takes her to an empty house in the middle of nowhere, and that’s when things get weird.

Cassie’s blindness is Perception’s biggest visual stunner, as the first-person exploration game is completely rendered using a washed out and hazy palette. But Cassie is able to “see” by tapping her cane on the ground and using echolocation. A text reading app on her phone also allows her to examine the many items strewn around the house. However, Perception’s compelling hook is also its biggest weakness. The monochomatic house is very difficult to navigate as the hallways and staircase have few distinguishing landmarks. Hopefully The Deep End will remedy this as the game nears its Late 2016 Steam launch.

Switching gears completely, I visited a trio of NES-inspired games next, and each was just a bit less silly than the last. First up, Don’t Mess With A Lobo With Shotguns is exactly as wacky as its name sounds, and the gameplay is just as messy at the moment. Using animated cutscenes (complete with “tracking” problems) to tell the story, Don’t Mess With A Lobo With Shotguns is all about the titular werewolf escaping from a prison overrun by monsters. It’s also extremely early in development, which makes it rather impossible to judge. Right now, it’s just a Streets of Rage-like shell with added guns and ghouls. Is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? I don’t know, but we should check back in a year or so.

Escaping a group of marauding monsters is also at the center of Haunted Halloween 85, but it’s also finished and now available for the NES. Wait, I’m serious… Developed by Retrotainment, the homebrew game was programmed in Assembly and actually stuffed into a cartridge for use on an actual NES system (or third-party equivalent). It’s a cute throwback to 30 years ago and was successful enough that the developer even announced a sequel (Haunted Halloween 86: The Curse of Possum Hollow) during the show. Both games will eventually be released through Steam if you want to try them out but don’t want to drop $50 on a new NES cartridge in 2016.

The 8-bit graphics used in protest simulator Riot are even more primitive than those found in Haunted Halloween 85, but it’s no side-scroller. Instead, players will be able to take control of the protesters or the police in a strategy game that rewards quick thinking and going with (and sometimes against) the flow of the crowd. It’s an interesting idea for a game, but the retro visual style makes everything feel very abstract and it was a bit hard to tell what was going on at times.

The same cannot be said for Just Shapes & Beats, an anti-shooting side-scrolling shooter that’ll be available for the PC this Fall. I first spotted Just Shapes & Beats last year and it felt even more polished this year. It’s all right there in the title, but 1-4 players take control of tiny ships that have to dodge a series of shapes that move to an electronic beat. It is chaotic in all the best ways and watching those little ships dash around the screen to save each other is intense. Just Shapes & Beats might lose a little something as a single-player game, but I am ready for more.

I swung back around to the Indie Megabooth one last time to finish my PAX East weekend with four games.

Metrico+ is a minimalist platformer with puzzles based on movement and logic. I had a lot of fun with this one and can’t wait to try out the full game on the PC, PS4, and Xbox One later this year. Knee Deep is a seedy neo-noir set in the Florida swamp and players will make Telltale-like choices to push the story forward. I liked what I saw at PAX East (the theatrical presentation was great) and I’d really like to see where the story goes.

I also want to learn a lot more about Tooth & Tail, the new game from Pocketwatch Games (the makers of Monaco). Tooth & Tails is a strategy game that tells the story of the cutest dystopia ever as a group of animals overthrew the old Lottery-style method of picking animals to be culled from the herd and replaced it with a very literal Hunger Games competition (the losers are actually eaten by the winners).

Appropriately enough, the last game I played at this year’s PAX East expo was Last Fight, an arena fighting game based on a French comic known as Last Man. Arena fighters (aside from Smash Bros.) don’t seem to be as popular as they used to, but I hope Last Fight changes that. Being able to rip a wing off an airplane and smash it into your opponent’s face is just good clean fun. It’ll be out next month on the PC, PS4, and Xbox One.

I didn’t get to see everything there was to see on the PAX East 2016 show floor (you never can), but this year had a rather deep bench of impressive titles. And I really rather enjoy that each PAX show is slowly developing its own specialty. If PAX West (formerly PAX Prime) is the AAA show, and PAX South is the board game show, I think PAX East has definitely become the indie and retro-inspired show. And as a big fan of retro games, I am loving every minute of it.

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John Scalzo is Warp Zoned's Editor-In-Chief and resident retro gaming expert. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at john AT warpzoned DOT com.

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