Tackling a convention as a one-man show is never ideal. There are always too many games to see and not enough time to see them. While I can only apologize to the games I didn't discover along the way, I can say that what I did play at PAX South 2018 blew me away. The standard quality of independent games continues to rise in 2018, and any one of these ten selections could have been the best showing at a PAX just a few years ago. Old genres are returning, staple genres are being redefined, and no player is without a world to dive into.
Just like my colleagues did at PAX West, my personal game of the show will be listed last and the rest of the list is sorted alphabetically. These are ten highly anticipated games that made an impact in San Antonio.
My top game of E3 2017 was Moonlighter, one of a pair of impressive high-quality pixel games that 11 bit Studios are planning on publishing this year. PAX South seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out the other game in this duo, and I'm glad that I did. Dead Mage's Children of Morta is a roguelike focusing on an extended family tasked with guarding a sacred mountain. Their place of worship has been corrupted by dark forces, so they must venture into the ever-shifting labyrinths underground to take on the beats and reclaim their homeland from the shadows.
This is a great setup that leads to some intriguing gameplay possibilities. Each family member represents a different class that completely alters how you take on the dungeon. One character could be a sword-wielding hero and another could be a mage focused on flinging fireballs. Each of these characters has unique controls that cater to different types of players. I initially struggled with the sword controls, but the twin stick fireballs let me slip into my comfortable Isaac instincts and burn down the countryside. With this solid gameplay and incredible hand-drawn pixels, Children of Morta looks to be an easy pick for my next favorite roguelike.
Not every game at PAX is going to be new, but few games at the show have been around the block as many times as Clusterpuck 99. I originally covered the game on YouTube way back in the stone ages of 2014, and anyone who decides to watch that video will know why I've focused on my writing since then. Despite not finding the Xbox rerelease a full package worthy of investment, I have much higher hopes for the new Switch version of the game. The portability of the console will mitigate a lot of the issues I had with the game's local multiplayer focus and allow madmen to hook up eight joycons to one little TV for late night space hockey.
As for the game itself, it's always been fun, and I had a blast knocking out a few rounds with fellow attendees at the booth. The Switch version will feature a suite of exclusive levels that will replace the Xbox-centric ones featured in the first console launch. They won't be as explicit or official as a giant Xbox logo though, instead focusing on theming. The Mario level will have vaguely Italian sensibilities and the Metroid one will have some space stuff strewn about. The devs have also sorted out their expanding list of arenas into more eSports-friendly default maps and crazy ones that feature boost pads and other obstacles. It all came together well, and 2018 might be the best time to check out PHL Collective's virtual air hockey madness.
I will always be in love with the 1980s, so Crossing Souls didn't have to do that much to win me over. A suburban romp in the tradition of Stand By Me and The Goonies, this narrative-focused action-adventure hits all the right notes in its presentation. The score masterfully borrows from John Williams' finest work, and the introductions of each character walk the fine line between cliche and charm that so much of this material straddles.
This is a Devolver game, so you know that gameplay isn't taking a backseat to the talking segments. Each character has a distinctive weapon and movement abilities that help them dodge foes and solve environmental puzzles. There's plenty of variety, plenty of wit in the dialogue, and plenty of references to figure out as you stare at the overloaded backgrounds of each scene. This is all before I even mention the gorgeous 2D animated cutscenes that truly bring the world of Crossing Souls to life. I felt like the game was just starting as my demo ended, and I'm eager to jump back in.
Let me run this concept by you. An entire town is swallowed by a hole in the ground controlled by a racoon who wants to steal people's trash. This racoon (named BJ) is a new hire at a donut shop in town and sends the donut hole in order to accomplish his thievery. During gameplay, you control the hole and attempt to swallow all the items on a screen before moving on, and each segment is bookended by story segments where BJ has to explain himself to the townspeople who now find themselves living in a dank cave.
Still with me? If so, Donut County might just be a puzzle worth solving. The gameplay and the dialogue both have the same vibe as Night in the Woods, although this game promises to be a bit more goofy and uplifting despite itself. If you're up for more small town animal hijinx, Ben Esposito's breezy hole 'em up should be on your radar when it releases later this year.
Of all the games I played at PAX South, Due Process was the biggest surprise. This really shouldn't be the case when you consider that the game has been in development for half a decade, but this was my first experience and it made a great impression. The visual style is inviting and the gameplay is just as hardcore as you'd expect.
For my in-depth thoughts, check out our full preview straight from the show floor.
One thing you quickly learn covering PAX events is that you always have to stroll through the PAX Rising section. This is where the most indie of the indie games hide, and you always find something that holds some promise. At PAX South 2018, that game was an arcadey action title called Elsie. While the game is still very much in development, the combination of Super Crate Box arena fights with Smash Bros. movement and a randomized perk progression system is full of promise.
I've played through a ton of single-screen action games, and most of them fail when it comes to character movement. Your firepower is what you rely on as you leap from platform to platform and hope to land in an empty spot. Elsie does it a bit differently. While the game is all about run and gun, you have just enough movement options to make the action varied and unique. You can perform a downward thrust that turns into an energetic ground pound, you have an energy field that can block and parry projectiles when it's active, and you can flip up and down through platforms to dodge shots. There's even a Smash Ball-type thing that shows up every few rounds and raises your stats if you can hit it enough times.
Still, that would all be for naught if the combat didn't feel tight, so I'm glad to report that it does. You can choose from three weapons at the start, with my preference being a launcher that fires bouncing energy grenades. Each weapon comes with a special ability that helps you keep the spawning enemies at bay, although you can take plenty of hits before you die for good. Once you get into a rhythm, everything from shooting to parrying shots to dashing around foes comes naturally and the end left me eager for more.
If all this sounds like fun, you can check out the same demo I sampled and keep up with development on the game's itch.io store page.
Of all the overcrowded genres in the indie sphere, few are more saturated than the puzzle platformer. No game is easy to make, but taking something like Mario and adding a twist is the first step in a lot of developer's careers, and it takes a lot to stand out among the titans of that space. Light Fall from Bishop Games has a gimmick that is less about solving puzzles and more about conquering platforms in the ways that older games were focused on.
You play as a child of legend in a pretty standard fantasy world where you have the power to summon a box under your feet. While you'll use this box to block lasers and solve other puzzles, you can also use it as a double jump. And a triple jump. You can jump up to four extra times, which combines with a speedy dash that really gets you moving. Better yet, the sections I played aren't Super Meat Boy levels of challenging, so anyone with just a bit of platforming skill will feel like they're breaking the game apart as they leap over chasms that even Cape Feather Mario would scoff at.
The developer assured me that they're taking the game's speedrunning potential seriously, and I have no doubt that the game will show up in a future AGDQ event. It should be something special.
The rebirth of Windjammers these past few years have led to a whole slew of "Jamlike" games that try to take this distinctive arcade gameplay in new directions. Some have tried to inject a little Rocket League in the proceedings, others have remade the game from a different perspective, and a few have tried to imagine what it would've been like on home consoles of its era. Personally, I think Mega Cat Studios has the right idea with Log Jammers. Adding in power-ups, insane speed, and even a few party modes, this stylish game of ping pong feels like a slide in the right direction.
Of course, you probably know Mega Cat Studios for their work creating new NES games, but Log Jammers will be coming to modern PC and console devices in addition to the expected NES release. For more on what to expect with that version of the game, check out our recent review of Creepy Brawlers.
Announced just before PAX South, Omensight promises to be a grand improvement on an already pretty grand game. This spiritual successor to Spearhead Games' Stories: The Path of Destinies ups the combat while retaining a focus on the type of complex storytelling that only a video game can provide.
For more thoughts on Omensight, check out my full preview from the show floor.
Finally, my game of the show. The Messenger initially presents itself as an 8 bit action game in the vein of Ninja Gaiden. You play as the titular messenger, a warrior who must deliver a sacred scroll after escaping from the fires of his burning village. Movement is tight, especially as you use a Specter of Torment-esque jumping mechanic that lets you gain additional height after slashing at parts of the environment. Combat has you spending time slashing your sword and hurling shurikens at all manner of demonic foes. The writing is clever and inventive, and the traditional lives system is replaced by an imp friend who eats your loot as a punishment for failure. Everything feels right, but a game nailing an 8 bit sensibility isn't enough to truly impress in 2018.
What truly puts The Messenger over the edge is its scope. After a full length NES adventure, the game reveals itself to be a hybrid of 8 bit and 16 bit. Your character and the graphics travel through time, and mechanics shift to fit the new paradigm. What was once a linear adventure turns into a backtracking Metroidvania, and you can shift between the two areas to bypass certain walls and reach hidden areas as you go through renewed levels. The developers billed this portion of the game as the "second quest," and it amazes me that they were willing to show me so much. I can guarantee that players going into this game cold are going to have their minds blown after this reveal. If everything comes together, The Messenger will be in the same conversation as Shovel Knight when it comes to retro games that improve on the past rather than emulate it.
What do you think of our PAX South favorites? Any games you're putting on your 2018 wish list? Anything we missed out on covering? Let us know in the comments below