In what may have been one of the last major gatherings of any kind in 2020, the game industry descended on Boston for PAX East 2020. As usual, the show floor was full of interesting games of all sizes. You had Nintendo inviting gamers on a stroll through the world of Animal Crossing right next to a lineup of six single-person passion projects. You had Bethesda with a build of DOOM: Eternal within walking distance of New Blood flexing their lineup of retro FPS goodness. Around every corner, you see something new, showcasing just how big games have become.
Attending as media, we must take in those sights and sounds at speeds exceeding 88 MPH. We tried to play everything, and we wished we had a time machine so we could. Still, when it's all said and done, we took in some fine video games that are coming soon to PCs and consoles near you. Which ones are worth your attention as the year rolls on? Which ones will be winning awards out of nowhere this time next year? Get ahead of the curve and check out all of our selections for show floor hidden gems you shouldn't miss.
Panzer Paladin Suits Up
The makers of Flinthook and Mercenary Kings are back with Panzer Paladin, an action platformer where it's literally you against the world. Playing as an android piloting a mech suit, you stomp around various locales fighting demons with whatever giant weapons you manage to pry from demonic hands. You can also break apart weapons for magic spells, throw them to get the jump on foes, or jump out of your suit for Blaster Master-esque platforming.
Tribute Games always have a knack for crafting perfectly retro experiences, and Panzer Paladin is no different. Playing through the tutorial got me right up to speed with precise controls and an interesting gameplay loop. This obviously isn't an ARPG, but you still have something of a rush whenever you loot new weapons and gain new attacks or abilities. With the developers promising over 100 different weapons to pick up, there's sure to be plenty of variety in the final package, and that's exciting.
I will say that the game feels punishingly difficult, which also fits the retro theming. You'll really have to hone in to take bosses down, something that's hard to do when you're running around a convention floor trying to play five hundred games in 72 hours. For what it's worth, even if the armored centaur at the end of my demo beat me down mercilessly, its design was top notch. I can't wait to challenge him again when the game releases this summer.
Bonfire Peaks Challenges My Knack For Collecting
My house is filled with knick-knacks that I don't really need. I own around 40 HD-DVDs, a bookshelf full of Funko Pops, and an Xbox 360 uDraw Tablet. None of these things are vital to my existence, but I have trouble getting rid of any of them. Just having them at arm's reach brings me some sort of strange comfort. Corey Martin's Bonfire Peaks challenges that notion. It's a 3D voxel-based puzzle game all about the meditative process of letting go. Your end goal is always to burn your belongings, and you have to create block staircases before turning them into ash before your eyes.
At its core, Bonfire Peaks is an isometric relative of Sokoban, but the limited mechanics make things both more interesting and more challenging. You not only have to build platforms for yourself with a limited set of boxes, but you also have to carry your box of stuff up to an elevated fire. This can be tricky since your box takes up another tile in front of you, and you might need to use your box as a platform before carrying it up. Even with limited moves available, it's the type of game that has you scratching your head for minutes. I felt like I could eventually brute force my way through the early puzzles, but things eventually got too complicated even in my short time with the demo.
Still, there are plenty of folks who enjoy the challenge. Releasing later this year, Bonfire Peaks looks to settle into the same space as games like Baba is You, Snakebird, and Stephen's Sausage Roll. The moody and contemplative atmosphere give the whole thing a unique twist, but fans of the genre will likely look over all that to get to the mind-stretching challenge. As for me, I'll just stick to finding room on my wall for one more poster.
Red Wings: Aces of the Sky Brings Back Crimson Memories
When I got an original Xbox of my very own, I got two games along with it. One of them was Halo: Combat Evolved, a game I had already played hundreds of hours at a local LAN center. The other, coming with my first Xbox Live subscription, was Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge. A first-party arcade dogfighting game, I ended up enjoying hours of high-flying fun in a genre I never would have played around in otherwise. After playing a bit of Red Wings: Aces of the Sky, I hope that it can be that same game for people picking up their first Nintendo Switch in the near future.
Red Wings shares more than a color identity and an overlong subtitle with the Xbox classic. The planes feel easy to control, and the weapons are fun to use, especially when you're dumping into the clouds trying to nail a rival from miles away. You'll be doing less of that as you master the controls over the game's lengthy single-player campaign and multiplayer horde modes. Or maybe you won't, I'm not your commander.
Among the new things Red Wings pulls off are a cel-shaded comic-book art style, which fits in well with the action. It's especially sharp with the finisher animations, which can zoom in to pilots as they try to shoot their rivals out of the sky with a highly accurate handgun shot. As that happened on screen, the developer sitting next to me excitedly exclaimed how they took that from real historical battles. It's so over the top that I had no choice but to believe him.
Getting Hooked on Cyber Hook
There's a lot of rad stuff in Cyber Hook, the speedrunning first-person platformer from Blazing Stick and Grafitti Games. In-game, you have a rather generous grappling hook in your right hand, and you use that to swing onto floating platforms like Spider-Man. Your left hand is empty, but you have the power to shoot lasers out of your finger guns and freeze time like Neo. Your entire world is a synthwave album cover, complete with a digital sunset and gridlines on every surface. Finally, you run at a blistering speed and you have magical legs that can withstand colliding with any surface from any angle. Best of all, everything I just mentioned feels great to execute, and you'll love running through each level, even if you don't have the chops to destroy the leaderboards.
Really, that's what Cyber Hook is all about. Shaving seconds off your time and finding optimal paths. There's no fancy overlay hiding its intentions, no story missions like the equally smooth Ghostrunner. It's just you trying to best yourself as you enjoy some very neat visuals and exhilarating physics. I can appreciate that level of simplicity, and I had a heck of a time finding unique ways to get stuck underneath and to the side of required platforms.
Considering that this type of first-person platformer is starting to become a genre all its own, I'm not sure how much this minimalistic style will make Cyber Hook stand out, especially considering how many games rely on the crutch that is '80s nostalgia nowadays. Still, if you can't get enough neon in your life, Cyber Hook's unique grappling will thrill you when it releases later this year.
Oh, and you can grapple onto the exit door and swing into the next level like Spider-Man swinging through that truck in Spider-Man 2. That's pretty rad too.
Shing Brings Something New To Beat 'em Ups
It's very rare in my writing about games that I get to bring up Too Human, the ill-fated Silicon Knights joint where dying forced you to watch a 15-second cutscene of an angel carrying your body to heaven. Shing, a new beat 'em up from Mass Creation, doesn't borrow that silliness, but it does have similar ideas about unique combat mechanics. A complaint you hear a lot about the genre is that it feels "mashy" and that takes no skill. Shing, like Too Human before it, puts its attacks on the right stick in an attempt to solve that issue.
It's a pretty intuitive setup. You flick the way you want to attack, with your ninja's sword following suit. This lets you pull off downward slashes and rushing attacks with ease. It's so easy that some people might still think it feels mashy, but I'd call it a solid attempt that gets most of the way there. There's a decent variety of enemies in the level I played and some fun items that change up the combat enough. There's also the fact that you play as a squad of characters at all times, letting you switch at will or partner with friends in co-op.
With heavy-hitters like Streets of Rage 4 on their way and instant classics like Fight'n Rage already on Steam, it seems we're in the midst of a beat 'em up resurgence. Shing changes things up enough that it's worth a look, especially if you're someone who likes a bit of attitude in their games. It doesn't take the controls from its '90s forebears, but it certainly steals the aesthetics, and that's just another reason why it stands out from the pack.
Colt Canyon is Red Dead's Mirror Image
I may be pretty lonely in this opinion, but Red Dead Redemption 2 just wasn't for me. The cinematic presentation, the dedication to slow and methodical controls, the priority of storytelling over gameplay, it's all just a little much. When I'm looking to play a cowboy game, I want something that is rootin' and/or tootin', not a harsh look into the life of a sick gunslinger. Colt Canyon is exactly the type of game that fits that particular bill.
Presented in a fully stylish silhouette throughout, Colt Canyon is a procedural twin-stick shooter where you have to clear away all the bad guys with a trusty revolver. Or, a bow and arrow. Maybe a musket and a stick of dynamite, if you're lucky. The best part about my time with the game was just how many different types of weapons it threw at you. Not only do you get to pick from several characters at the start of a run, but they all play differently, and that changes further as you find more tools in the world.
The plot and the characters aren't super important, because Colt Canyon is all about the feel of a western. Even with its limited art style, the game threw me into familiar scenarios and challenged me to John Wayne my way out of them at a rapid pace. From ambushes to shootouts, the game seemed to generate perfect scenarios for me, even across multiple runs. All that and you can set fires in wheat fields to wrangle up gunslingers. I'll definitely be checking this one out when it moseys into town for its full release.
Arboria is Offputting in the Best Way
To end our whirlwind tour of conventions long past, here's a procedural Soulslike starring a bunch of nasty trolls. Some games just have a vibe to them, and that's the best way to describe what I played of Arboria. This colorful fantasy world features faeries that immediately recall Navi, a machine that regenerates trolls at the cost of one troll head, and caves infected with nasty insects, among other things.
I'll admit, I can't really comment much on the gameplay, as my relationship with all Soulslikes is fleeting at best. I can say definitively that bum-rushing into battle and refusing to dodge doesn't net you many victories in combat, and that's kind of weird considering the over-the-top setting that Arboria takes place in. You're playing as crazy mutant trolls, you watch them emerge from vials of goop like the Uruk-hai in Lord of the Rings. They just don't seem like the type of blokes who block in combat.
What I did find charming about Arboria was how out of time it felt. The game spells words with Zs instead of Ss like it's 1998 and revels in how gross it looks. I can get behind a game with such a clear identity, one that seems to go against all measure of good taste and market research. For the assumedly real teenage dudebros that can't get enough of Dark Souls, this will be a slam dunk. Also, now that Bill and Ted are back, they might like it too. Someone get this game over to the time machine.