PAX time is one of my favorite times of the year. It's so inspiring to see so many incredible studios and independent developers showing off their latest projects, and the diversity of games on display is absolutely mindboggling. There's only one problem: Even four days isn't nearly enough time for one human to play everything worth talking about at PAX. I did my best to scour the floor to find the most intriguing games from PAX West, and I've written about 15 of them. No matter what genre you're into, whether it's stealth-action, horror, classic arcade games, or something in between, there's sure to be something on this list that's bound to be your next obsession.
Ultra Ultra is a studio formed by ex-Hitman developers, so it makes sense that its first game is a methodical, systems-based stealth game. Echo has a twist, though, and it's a big one: Your enemies will learn what you do and use those techniques against you. The palace you explore in Echo is sentient, recording every single one of your actions while its lights are on. Meanwhile, evil copies of the protagonist are trying to find and kill her. Suddenly, the lights go dark, and you're free to do whatever you want while the palace is rebooting - as long as you don't get spotted by the guards, of course. When the lights go on, the enemy guards will have learned every action you've performed during the last cycle, whether you've vaulted over a barrier, crouched, or fired your gun. This can pose a problem, as enemies will now be able to find you in ways they couldn't before, but you can also use the enemy AI against them - like eating grapes to force them to break from their patrol routines.. The developers told me an anecdote about a particularly perceptive player at PAX who walked backwards during the day cycle, forcing the enemy to do the same after the system rebooted, effectively destroying any opportunity for the guards to get the drop on her. Brilliant.
Platforms: PC/PS4/Xbox One
Release date: PC: Out now, PS4/Xbox One: TBD
No-one's making Wipeout or F-Zero games any more, and that's just fine for 34BigThings, as its anti-gravity racer Redout fills in the gap left behind by those titles and then some. It's an absolutely gorgeous racer, with a blistering sense of speed and an art style that teeters between low-poly and high-res realism. Rather than putting air brakes on the shoulder buttons, Redout uses the right analog stick to allow you to strafe and pitch along the course, allowing for incredibly precise banked turns for maximum acceleration. A career mode, online multiplayer, 20 tracks, VR support, and more basically make this the F-Zero game we've wanted for years.
Secret Legend is a Zelda game without all of the extra baggage weighing it down. You play as a cute fox plopped into a beautiful world reminiscent of the memories you have of your favorite PlayStation RPGs, and are encouraged to explore without any disembodied voice or set of tutorials guiding you. Signposts are written in a bizarre language, though a symbol for a sword gives you a hint as to where you need to go. Paths are blocked by bushes, teasing out the multitude of paths you'll be able to explore once you find that dang sword. And then - there it is, lying on a stone slab. Now, even more of the world is opened up to you, but you also saw another pathway leading off to the corner, so you head there, and find another set of trails leading off to parts unknown. You pick up a page off the ground. It appears to be torn out of a 16-bit video game manual and it's written in the same set of strange symbols, though you can infer that perhaps there are items to buy somewhere, and that something will happen if you hold down the R2 button and - wait, you can block? Even in this early build, Secret Legend is the kind of game where one discovery blossoms out to at least a half-dozen more, and exploring its adorable world is simply intoxicating.
Platforms: PC/Unspecified platforms
Release date: PC: Out now in Early Access, Other: TBD
While the intriguing shmup/point-and-click adventure hybrid Starr Mazer is still in development, its spin-off, Starr Mazer DSP, is taking the shmup half and completely blowing it out. It's set hundreds of years before the upcoming adventure game, during the cataclysmic Great War where billions of humans lost their lives to an alien invasion. You play as a handful of those billions of humans in a side-scrolling shooter reminiscent of classics like R-Type or Gradius, with each pilot's ship, face, and voice procedurally generated. Inevitably, you'll run out of pilots on a given run, and you'll be sent back to the start - but, you can spend your points on faster, stronger, and more adept pilots and ships to help get you further through each act. One hit will destroy your ship, though, so it might be better to spend your points on a handful of scrub pilots instead of one or two really good ones to brute force your way through a stage. With frenetic combat reminiscent of the best 16-bit shmups and an intriguing rogue-lite upgrade, Starr Mazer DSP is already incredibly solid, even in its current Early Access state.
If you're not familiar with Hand of Fate, a recap: You've found yourself speaking with a mysterious fortune teller known as the Dealer, who puts you through a series of challenges combining aspects of deck-building, third-person action, and table-top role-playing games. You form your deck, which includes both equipment as well as the encounters and enemies you'll face on the board, and your choices will determine how a given run will play out, occasionally thrusting you into real-time combat. Hand of Fate 2 takes all of that and improves on it while adding a few new twists. With enhanced visuals, access to companions who will fight alongside you, and a handful of new chance games and narrative hooks, Hand of Fate 2 looks to be better than its predecessor in nearly every way.
The Bunker is a game from an alternate dimension, where Sewer Shark and Night Trap were all million-sellers and FMV games never went out of style. You play as a man who has spent his entire life in an underground nuclear bunker, who suddenly finds himself all alone after his mother dies. All he has left is the routine: take his vitamins, check for radiation, make sure the computer is working, eat, and sleep. Of course, something goes wrong, taking him into parts of the bunker he was never meant to explore. Featuring actors from The Hobbit and Game of Thrones, writing from the minds behind The Witcher and Soma, and shot on-location in a real decommissioned bunker with practical effects, The Bunker draws you into its world with the bingeable quality of pulpy TV shows like Stranger Things while featuring the interactivity of a Telltale adventure game.
Horror games have gone through a renaissance over the last few years, and Stifled is the latest to find new ways to scare players. In Stifled, you'll move through a series of environments while avoiding hideous monsters, but you won't be able to see where you're going without a microphone. Normally, the environments are pitch dark, but speaking into the mic will send out a ping which will envelop the scenery and give you a visual representation of your surroundings via echolocation. You have to be careful though, because a giant creepy monster baby will find you if you speak too loudly. I caught myself holding my breath more than a few times as I snuck past the monster, lest it hear me and chase me down. It's a really cool concept and able to get a surprising amount of terror out of its sparse visual style.
Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom seems like your typical retro game update at first glance, but its weighty jumps and deliberate, old-school combat hide a game loaded to the gills with secrets. A path is blocked by fireballs, so you need a shield. Pick up some iron boots at the nearby shop, strap them on, hop in the water, and suddenly a whole new undersea area has opened up to explore, complete with the treasure you'll need to progress. Featuring sumptuous animation, a charming, googly-eyed aesthetic, and created in collaboration with classic game designer Ryuichi Nishizawa, Monster Boy feels as fresh as it is unabashedly retro; a modern update to the Wonder Boy in Monster Land series in all but name.
Platforms: PC/PS4/Xbox One/Wii U
Release date: First half of 2017
The first episode of The Fall is a brilliant sci-fi black comedy, mashing up adventure game puzzles with side-scrolling action and exploration, and Part 2: Unbound goes even deeper with those concepts. After the revelation at the end of Part 1, the ARID AI now finds herself adrift, bound to various robots around the planet. In order to break free from these bonds, she has to… piss them off, and she does so through hilariously horrifying means. In one scenario, she's attached to a robotic butler who continues to serve his household despite the fact that everyone's been dead for years. So what do you do? Trick him into disappearing into the house's circuitry for a few moments so you can write a letter telling him what a disappointment he is that he allowed everyone in the house to die. Suddenly, ARID now finds herself inside a neural network, which serves as a metroidvania-style hub between other artificial consciousnesses. The Fall's clever writing and stellar voice work is in full effect here, making the wait for the second chapter of this trilogy that much more unbearable.
As someone who enjoys exploring the history of game design and wishes more publishers would make their old games easier to access, I appreciate that Atari is putting in the effort to reach into its back catalog of classics and make them available to a new audience. Each volume contains 50 games, combining a mix of arcade and console greats from Asteroids to Combat, and throws in a bunch of neat touches and modern enhancements. Each game's box art and instruction manual has been fully scanned and reproduced for posterity, and you can even bring up a virtual overlay of the Atari 2600 console to access all of its visual customization and difficulty dip switches. To bring these games into the 21st century, Atari has also added online multiplayer, leaderboards, and Trophy/Achievement support where applicable. While nothing can quite replicate the experience of playing on actual Atari joysticks on an old CRT television set, this seems to get pretty damn close.