Last weekend, PAX West 2021 came to Seattle, reigniting a four-day celebration of video games that took a break last year for obvious reasons. The Washington State Convention Center and the area surrounding it was abuzz with high foot traffic, cosplay, and all things gaming. After more than a year without any sort of convention, the atmosphere felt heartwarming and kind, despite the collective sense of worry hanging over everything. Nonetheless, this year’s outing was undeniably smaller in size and scope than previous years — and that’s perfectly fine. The spirit of PAX still stood strong.
In previous years, I barely had time to myself at PAX West. There was always something else to see, a new game to play, or another developer to talk to. What little downtime I had went to finding a place to sit down rather than actually sitting down. By comparison, this year, seats were aplenty, and I spent a good chunk of time wandering around, searching for the next thing instead of rushing to it. I inevitably only went for two of the four days, instead of the entire Labor Day weekend.
Anecdotally speaking, there were noticeably fewer people at PAX this year. It wasn’t a ghost town by any means, but it felt more like walking through a mall on the weekend instead of shuffling through a mosh pit. But you don’t need to approach max capacity to feel the kindness and excitement in the air. Many people still cosplayed, and many others marveled at their efforts. A Gandalf yelled, “You shall pass!” at a Gordon Freeman, and nearby strangers chuckled. At various vendors, people shared their excitement over the unique knick-knacks and merchandise on display. One of the merchants behind D&Tea, a tea shop with blends inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, remarked at how much of stock they went through in the first half of day one. All in all, it felt like people were simply happy to be at PAX again.
The same can be said for the many developers I talked to. With far fewer major publishers on the showfloor, indie devs and smaller labels had their moment to shine. Each person I talked to was clearly eager to talk about their project — it’s their livelihood, after all, but part of the excitement felt like it stemmed from simply being at a convention once again.
In the past, the longest lines were reserved for the AAA publishers, like Nintendo and Sony. This year, the largest publisher on the showfloor was Bandai Namco, and it dedicated its entire space to Tales of Arise (which you can read our review of here). The line for it consistently seemed like the longest at PAX, but that’s to be expected for a major JRPG just before its anticipated release. Other indie booths, however, were just as lively.
Standout Games from PAX West 2021
PM Studios had a hit on its hands with Squish, a competitive party game that asks you to survive as crushing blocks rain from the sky. The multiplayer aspect brought many people together as they cheered for and against each other. Nearby, stations were set up for games like My Time at Sandrock. Generally, the upcoming sequel to My Time at Portia lives up to any expectations you might have. A lot of it felt familiar, with similar gameplay and tongue-in-cheek characters. However, Sandrock takes things one step further, refining some of the more laborious building processes to streamline some things. Though it's recently been delayed, the wait will likely be worth it.
A few booths down from PM Studios sat Apogee, which brought titles like Below the Stone and Dead Fury. Below the Stone scratches an itch between roguelite and crafting sim. You play as a dwarf who delves into procedurally generated caves, looking for ore veins to mine. After collecting a certain amount of ores, you return to home base, craft some equipment, and repeat the cycle. Dead Fury, on the other hand, aims to refine the ever-beloved pastime of shooting hordes of zombies. Unfortunately, the preview build I played at the time was having some issues, but I could feel a kernel of a fun idea taking shape, as it adds an arcade-like twist to the third-person shooter. The absolute king at Apogee’s booth, however, was Turbo Overkill, and you can find out why in our preview.
In the same area of the convention center, Tentworks Interactive showed off their latest build of City Block Builder, a game that straddles the line between the grand scope of Cities: Skylines and the micro scale of The Sims. You start off with a single city block, building out retail spaces like restaurants and cinemas. The management gets far more detailed, too. Constructing the walls and rooms of the restaurant is only the start; then you have to hire workers, pick the menu, furnish the kitchen with all the necessary appliances, and, of course, decorate your space. I can easily see City Block Builder becoming a game players spend hours upon hours with, especially as you expand the number of blocks you control. The developers are also planning to support modding down the line via the Steam Workshop, so the possibilities could be endless.
If city (block) builders aren’t quite your thing, maybe the playful art of Summoners Fate might be up your alley. The gameplay mixes grid-based tactical combat with card-based actions, forcing you to think on multiple strategic levels. Positioning can be just as important as saving a card for when you desperately need it. In the short demo, I could already see inklings of the wonderful, cascading chaos that often comes with card games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering, so if that’s up your alley, this one’s worth keeping an eye on. The ultimate goal for Summoners Fate is to seamlessly transition between your computer and your phone, so you can play short bursts on the go or sit down for an afternoon of adventuring. Best of all, D20Studios plans on making it a premium experience from the start, meaning you won’t have to worry about the trappings of free-to-play game design.
Finally, one last game from PAX West 2021 worth following is Grim Tranquility. Revealed by Poorly Timed Games during Memorial Day weekend, this hex-based tactics roguelite isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions about the state of the world. The sci-fi story sets itself years in the future, after climate change has ravaged Earth. Humans take to the stars, searching for a new home among alien planets. While it’s still early in the development cycle, the tactical combat felt like it had a lot of layers. Each member of your squad gets one of three classes, each with various abilities that complement — and sometimes hinder — their teammates, encouraging careful, thoughtful play. The all-remote, majority queer studio has major voice talent backing up the game too, including high-profile names like Steve Blum and Ray Chase. While we’re still a ways out from release, it’ll be interesting to see how Grim Tranquility takes shape as more layers of polish are added on, and I look forward to seeing the themes and messages it’ll bring to the table.
All in all, PAX West has seen better years. For its return in the midst of a difficult pandemic, however, it was still a kind, warm, fun event. The atmosphere didn’t have that signature PAX sense of chaos, but that’s likely for the better, considering the state of the world. Hopefully come next year, PAX — and various other conventions — will have the opportunity to return in full form.
Did you attend any conventions this summer? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments below.