My Top 10 Indie Games at PAX Prime 2015, Part I

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PAX was a whirlwind four days of mayhem. While I took some time to check out the big names, I had the most fun visiting the indie developers. Whether they were in the Indie Megabooth, Indie Minibooth, or part of the PAX 10, these guys had some incredibly fun and original games on display. Of course, I didn’t get to see and try everything, so this list is highly biased as to what caught my eye, how long the line was, and of course, how fun I found the game when I got to play it! With the exception of number one, which was my top indie pick, here are the games that stood out for me in no particular order:

1) Battle Chef Brigade
One of the official PAX 10, this is a game that shouldn’t work, didn’t appeal to me when I first heard it described, and yet I can’t wait to get my hands back on it. Battle Chef Brigade is a cooking game with the attitude of Iron Chef, and the twist that you have to run out and catch your food before you cook it. Putting together a meal is done by placing food items into a pot that become “Taste Gems”, where the game then transitions into a fast-paced gem-matching phase as you try to make your dish worth as much as you can before the clock runs out. When I served my dragon-based concoction to the judge his reaction to my culinary skill had me laughing so hard I had to pause the game. Sound insane? It is, but it works! Gorgeous artwork just adds to the drooling I’ll be doing until this one shows up in 2016. In the meantime, you can whet your appetite at their site.

Three screen shots from Battle Chef Brigade.
It’s like a meal where the ingredients shouldn’t combine to make anything that tastes good, but it winds up being incredibly delicious!

2) Assault Android Cactus
I made the mistake of reading “Assault” as a verb, when instead the protagonist is an assault android named Cactus. Another game from the PAX 10, I almost skipped it as I thought an old-school shooter wouldn’t appeal to me. Was I ever wrong! Cactus has a fast pace and art style that are incredibly appealing. It updates the traditional shooter gameplay, which usually focuses on evasion, by introducing a battery mechanic: if you don’t jump into the fray to collect essential drops, you’ll run out of power and die. The game includes four-player co-op that looks like it should be a great couch experience, but it really shines in single player. A roster of eight androids are included, all with unique visuals, powers, and audio interactions with the game’s bosses. This results in a character-driven story that should generate replay value as you try the other androids to experience their play styles and see what they have to say. In a refreshing twist, all the androids are female (well, as female as an android can be). The game has also paid close attention to ensuring that cues are presented to the player both with audio and visual indications to ensure you don’t miss anything in the frenzy of combat. The image below can’t possibly convey the action, you have to see it in motion, which you can do here. Like what you see? The game is available for Early Access on Steam, and will be released on 23 September.

Female androids fire at incoming enemies with a flamethrower and bullets.
Your character shoots a lot of weapons, and the enemies die in droves, which give you stuff. It’s a highly addictive feedback loop!

3) Universe Sandbox2
We’ve talked about the original back in 2011, but there have been significant improvements to the game since then. I cornered project lead and creator Dan Dixon to talk about it while it was played by another member of his team. Universe Sandbox2 is a n-body simulator. While that may be the technical term, a better description is that it’s a physics playground made up of asteroids, moons, planets, stars, and galaxies. Want to see what happens if another moon shows up headed for our moon? Do it! What would happen if another star wandered too close to our system? Just plunk one down near ours and watch the magic. The game includes our solar system, where planets are modeled with accurate height maps, as well as hundreds of other preset scenarios. Alternatively, you can make your own from scratch, utilizing the models of the included hundreds of planetary bodies. Dixon has added a climate scientist and astrophysicist to his team, so planet surface conditions and atmospheres are now modeled, meaning you can add water or change the atmospheric gas composition and see what happens. This was the first game I tried out after PAX, and my kids became instantly enamored with it, with my eight-year-old declaring it to be more fun than Splatoon! Check out videos on their website, and once you see how crazy fun it looks, you can play the Alpha through Early Access on Steam.

A simulation of Earth has multiple asteroids impacting its surface. Part of the Earth glows red.
Maybe…maybe Mark Watney has room for us…

4) Into the Stars
I was wandering past the Indie Minibooth when this one caught my eye. Look at that spaceship! Animated, it’s absolutely spellbinding. Developer Ben Jones spent some time discussing his game with me. In a nutshell, Into the Stars is three-dimensional FTL crossed with Oregon Trail, a roguelike voyage where you’re transporting what may be the last of humanity to a new planet after the Skorn destroyed your home world. Before you depart you get to customize your captain and ship to match your play style. During your voyage you’ll have to mine for supplies, encounter alien vessels, and deal with other encounters and threats to your survival. A single playthrough can take up to 15 hours to complete, and that’s if you survive the journey. The game is available on Steam Early Access, and I gave it a go after PAX. Every bit of my experience in the vast gamespace was fun, and my final fight with the Skorn, which I didn’t survive, had my entire body tense with excitement. With a team that has a number of titles under their respective belts in their previous jobs, this looks like it’s going to turn into something special. Check out gameplay footage on their website, and be thankful you don’t have to worry about space diarrhea in real life!

A massive spaceship with a backdrop of rocks and a dwarf sun.
That back section of the ship is holding 10,000 colonists in a space-city. Parts of the ship rotate, and gorgeous particle effects stream out the back. Shut up and take my money!

5) Ittle Dew 2
This demo came as a total surprise. Not just because I hadn’t heard of it, but because the dev, Joel, was literally ninja-demoing his game at PAX, walking around with a Surface tablet hung from his neck, asking passers-by if they would like to play his game. How could I resist? Ittle Dew 2 may have a cutesy look to it, but not only are those graphics gorgeous, they are laid on top of some fun gameplay. In the 10 minutes I stood there, talking with Joel and playing the game, I had a blast. It felt very Zelda-like, and I could see myself settling down on my couch for a good, long session. The single pic below doesn’t “dew” the game justice, so head over to the web page to see more. And while I didn’t get to play Magnetic: Cage Closed, I feel like it should get an honorable mention here as Petter Henricksson was traveling with Joel and doing the same thing, I just didn’t have time to play his game as I rushed to another panel!

Screenshot of a night time scene from Ittle Dew 2 with an inset showing a two men, one with a tablet around his neck showing a different scene from the same game.
Ittle Dew 2 is a graphical treat with solid combat. Inset: Maybe the two most brazen devs at PAX Prime!

There’s too much gaming goodness here for one article! Be sure to check out part II of the article, where I’ll cover a puzzle game, party game, platformer, townbuilder, and the game that nearly broke me before the GeekDad panel.

 

Disclosure: GeekDad was provided with copies of Universe Sandbox2 and Into the Stars to aid in the review post-PAX Prime.

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