Herein lies the great fallacy of being a gaming expert on a website dedicated to video games:
I already played everything at PAX East this year. Seriously.
Yes, the majority of my time at this year’s Penny Arcade Expo in Boston was spent watching demos of games that were either of ones I already played or had absolutely massive lines. The Doom Eternal line alone for the multiplayer demo was THREE HOURS, and the one for the Final Fantasy VII remake had a dedicated ticketing system. This wasn’t exactly ideal; a man can only wait around to play the hottest games before they reach their Limit and Break (sorry).
So to mix things up and bring attention to some of the hidden gems in the lineup, I thought I’d talk about the games I was able to experience that weekend in some form, be it past experience, demos, buying merchandise, and some other…unexpected opportunities.
Shovel Knight – The Ace of Spades
Seeing the Yacht Club booth first made me nostalgic for how far the studio had come over the last decade. Going from a plucky 2014 Kickstarter to one of, if not the, most popular indie game this side of Undertale is a true masterclass on how to make a game through crowdfunding. Now that the series is over with its King of Cards expansion (not counting next year’s spinoffs Dig and Pocket Dungeon), it’s worth looking back and seeing how this chivalrous shovel lad accomplished so much with so little.
It’s tempting to chalk up the success of Shovel Knight to looking and playing just like an NES game, but as I’ve said time and again, there’s a clear difference between looking the part and feeling it. What makes Shovel Knight stand out is its willingness to treat the NES game library as a pick-and-mix, only selecting the best bits and cutting out the worst.
Because much as I love classic Mario and Mega Man, I recognize not everyone can or wants to memorize entire levels through trial-and-error with a limited number of lives. As a compromise, the game just takes away a portion of cash, while providing a chance to reclaim it if you get back without dying beforehand. This modern approach to difficulty is the best microcosm of how Shovel Knight presents the classic Nintendo experience in an approachable package.
That package has gotten better with a myriad of free updates, including no less than FOUR full on games masquerading as expansions. Plague of Shadows, Specter of Torment, and King of Cards all provided unique spins while fleshing out the otherwise straightforward series lore (and the Joustus card game in King alone offers hours of fun for strategic types). Capping everything off with the multiplayer-focused Showdown just adds icing to an already sumptuous cake, making the all-in-one Treasure Trove collection worth digging into (hehe) even for those not blinded by nostalgia.
Dead Cells – Rogue One: A Souls-Like Story
If Shovel Knight remains the gold standard for Kickstarter projects, then Dead Cells represents a similar high watermark for Steam Early Access titles. In lesser hands, this game could’ve been a Frankenstein-esque pastiche of game design trends (random maps, pixel art, brutally difficult platforming), but French studios Motion Twin and Evil Empire struck gold, tapping into the essence of a great action game.
A large part of the tension comes from the nature of death: if you die, you go all the way back to the start of a run, and the levels change every time. Nothing is more heartbreaking than getting 45 minutes in, only to screw up with a single mistimed dodge and lose everything you worked so hard for. Yet that level of tension helps make Dead Cells so wonderful: in an age where so many games have tacked-on leveling systems that feel hollow, everything you do carries a tangible sense of anxiety as you weigh the consequences.
You have access to upgrades, dodges and weapons spread across three stats: Brutality (Red), Tactics (Purple), and Survival (Green). Scrolls and more powerful items can be found along the maps, but progression has a wrinkle: the more you level a stat, the smaller the health boost. It’s just another way the game makes you think on your feet, making the process of conquering this remarkable rogue-like equally grueling and gratifying.
With the recent release of the Bad Seed expansion, optimizations to the Switch port, and numerous free updates, there’s never been a better time for going straight to hell in a cell. Also, the PAX East booth had a Bread Cells plushie—anyone that makes great puns gets an automatic recommendation on principle.
Enter the Gungeon – The Game with the Golden Pun
It has a peashooter that shoots literal peas. If you don’t appreciate that, you’re a bigger joke than Lilly Singh. Shut up.
Super Meat Boy Forever – Cook ’em Raw
Great as it is highlighting PAX games you can enjoy in the here and now, the show also featured plenty of upcoming releases with a lot of meat on their bones. No better example can be found than Super Meat Boy Forever, the sequel to the 2010 original platformer that made Edmund McMillen a celebrity among indie developers.
But a lot has changed since then, and not just the departure of McMillen from Team Meat in favor of much more, ahem, binding commitments. Where Meat Boy offered a gradual sense of controller-smashing challenge, Forever splits the difference by arranging its hand-made levels in a procedural fashion similar to Enter the Gungeon and Dead Cells. All 7,200 of them. Talk about having a lot of meat on its bones.
McMillen’s absence might be cause for concern, and truth be told, the crunchy, faux-retro visual flair of the first game is missed, but Forever retains the gritty spirit in all its glory. I only played one level, but I guarantee you that level could justifiably pass as a final stage in most other games these days. So, of course, I’ll tackle it without issue.
Speaking of meaty, unforgiving follow-ups to meaty, unforgiving games…
Nioh 2 (Last Chance Trial) – Samurai Jack of All Trades
Mentioning this game is kind of cheating since it never appeared at the show; Nioh 2 was going to be part of Sony’s appearance before they pulled out over coronavirus concerns. Luckily, there was a free Last Chance Trial demo the same weekend, and with its official release this month, now’s as good a time as any to look at this promising samurai warrior.
Much has been said about the original Nioh upon its 2017 release, and how it brought Team Ninja back to prominence after several embarrassing missteps. That and pitching a project as “Dark Souls X Ninja Gaiden” got plenty of people’s attention, myself included. Thankfully, the final product stood strong on its own terms despite a few rough edges—edges this prequel looks set to rectify based on my limited experience.
Compared to most other so-called “Souls-likes,” Nioh moves at a noticeably faster pace with MANY more pieces to keep track of at once. From stamina management and equipment choices to the emphasis on animation, many mechanics come off as familiar holdovers from Dark Souls III‘s more aggressive take on the formula. It differs significantly when factoring Team Ninja into the equation, which has more to do with its influences on the underlying engine than the historical Japanese setting endemic to most Koei Tecmo releases.
Nowhere does Nioh distinguish itself from its peers than in Ki, its own take on stamina. It’s often said the stamina bar is more important than the health bar, and here, the game goes one step further with the Ki Pulse. By tapping the R1 button at the right time, players can instantly regain a large amount of Ki, placing a much stronger emphasis on active play. Stances also factor into Ki management, as choosing High Stance attacks does more damage at the cost of more Ki while Low Stance does the opposite. Between these fundamentals the reworked Yokai system, where players can collect different support attacks and transformations by absorbing Soul Cores, Nioh 2 thrives on the notion of playing as a Warrior instead of just maxing out a Warrior stat sheet.
I plan on playing the full version this month, so expect more comprehensive coverage in the near future. Just know that, in the near future, nothing else could possibly surpass it-
Square Enix: HOLD MY BUSTER SWORD!!
Final Fantasy VII Remake Demo – Never Thought I’d See the Day…
This demo of arguably the biggest game of 2020 getting released on a Monday morning was about as whiplash-inducing as seeing Xavier Woods in a Powdered Toast Man costume at the live Acquisitions Inc. show: nostalgic whiplash. While people have done all the comparison videos (with some salt about it being “too hard” on the side), this look at the remake will come with a major difference:
Kingdom Hearts cameos notwithstanding, I never grew up on Final Fantasy. Rather ironic, since the remake looks like a middle ground between these two in terms of gameplay.
As you can clearly see, VII Remake goes for a much stronger emphasis on action, while still keeping the outer framework of the Active-Time Battle (ATB) System used in its precursor. Juggling real-time and turn-based gameplay is nothing new, and more often than not delivers the worst of both worlds, but Square appears to have made smart compromises here.
The original game used turn-based combat mechanics, but all characters ran on separate timers, adding a dynamic sense of tension to encounters. Remake, by comparison, does the inverse, where the real-time action is complemented by more traditional menus.
Cloud Strife, for instance, moves in real time with all his attacks mapped to the Square button, with a Triangle modifier for mode swapping. More complex actions, like casting spells, using items and switching/commanding different party members take place in menus that slow down time.
It requires an adjustment curve, and those looking for the same 1:1 gameplay will not find it here; playing the Classic option automatically bumps it down to Easy mode as a bit of a cop-out. But Normal Mode provides a reasonably decent challenge, and I actually found myself regretting how much I enjoyed the demo.
That sounds weird, but keep in mind: this Remake is NOT a complete experience. Square has gone on record saying this release will be split up into multiple pieces, almost like an episodic adventure game. Personally, I plan on waiting for a complete compilation (which, if Square is smart, will release in 2022 to coincide with the 25th anniversary), but anyone picking up this first chapter will be happy this classic is getting properly remade instead of Reforged *forced coughing fit*.
East Is Far From Least
Phew, okay, sure was a lot to unpack from PAX this year, huh? And this is just the stuff I was able to check out. But don’t worry, if this is what’s on tap for the start of 2020, I got a feeling the rest of the year, including later PAX conventions, will make for an interesting experience.
If nothing else, the next 9 months will bring a new meaning to the phrase “Hindsight’s 20/20.”
And in the meantime, feel free to check out my friend Tyler’s Pumpkin Copter Cast, he knows his stuff and even got to chat with Tommy Refenes about his time with Team Meat. He also beat Cuphead, so he’s good.