PAX West was a wailing stampede of video games large and small. It’s impossible for a single person to play everything there. That said, I did go hands-on with a bunch of indie games and happened upon some very pleasant surprises. Here are a few of the best.
Way of the Passive Fist is a Mad Max-inspired side-scrolling beat-‘em-up with a twist: you don’t really beat up anybody. Instead, you parry, dodge, and shoulder-check enemies until they’re exhausted, at which point you knock them over with a single, dismissive flick or the occasional punch from your massive mechanical arm. As you bounce between different types of enemies, letting each barrage you with their best blows, the game takes on a rhythmic quality that feels as satisfying as any flawlessly executed punch-kick-buttstomp combo. It would be easy for a game with this kind of concept to rely on cheap gimmickry, but the demo I played of Way of the Passive Fist had brains to back up its selectively-deployed brawn. It’s coming to PC, PS4, and Xbox One next year.
If you only play The Sims in hopes of drawing out Death with unlikely domino chains of calamity (and grills and fireplaces and enough carpet to furnish every family room in the country), Death Coming might be up your alley. You play as the Grim Reaper’s assistant across a series of increasingly comedic sandbox levels populated by lively little people just waiting to die. You don’t have any physical presence, so you can’t just punch or shoot people. Instead, you click on objects in the environment and let grim inevitably do the dirty work for you. This can mean anything from dropping an air conditioning unit on somebody’s head to unleashing a beehive on an unsuspecting crowd to frightening a worker in a bomb facility so he accidentally kills off all his coworkers. It’s a game of experimentation, of cause and (often gruesome) effect. Death Coming will be out on PC sometime this month.
While The Gardens Between has two main characters, a young girl and boy who are running away from home, you don’t directly control either of them. Rather, this one’s a puzzle game about manipulating time forward or backward with the push of a button. It might sound simple, but The Gardens Between is full of wrinkles. For example, one surreal landscape I played on contained a giant plank that only the young girl could leap onto. In order to help her friend up, I had to rapidly make time move forward and backward so that she would continually leap atop a saw, slowly propelling it through the plank and cutting off a piece to create a ramp. It was a clever little puzzle that took me a bit, but it offered a great “eureka” moment and went a long way toward teaching me the game’s unique mechanical language. The last puzzle in the demo was so tough that I gave up before solving it. The Gardens Between will be out on PC early next year.
Remember that brief period of time where everybody was like, “What if Sport X, but punches?” Dunk Lords feels like a throwback to the era that birthed NFL Blitz, NHL Hitz, and the like. It’s got strands of NBA Jam in its DNA, but also you can uppercut other players to interrupt their sweet dunks. On top of that, each character has a unique special move they can charge up and unleash on foes. There’s also a Counter-Strike-like shared economy that allows teams to buy power-up items between rounds. If you ever thought basketball needed more violence, giant sunglasses-wearing bears, and strawberry men who drop jars of literal NBA jam as a defense mechanism, keep an eye on Dunk Lords. It’s coming to Steam early next year.
Pikuniku’s PAX booth was constantly mobbed by crowds of people who couldn’t stop swooning. The puzzle-exploration game is engineered to be goddamn adorable, starring little creatures who look like pig noses but can sprout dangly, physics-powered legs whenever they please. Words don’t do their weird, stompy little feet justice. Just watch the video. Oh, and despite how cheery it all seems, Pikuniku is, according to its developers, actually a dystopian game about deep state conspiracies. Ultimately, though, they say the game is about “making people happy.” It’ll be out on PC and Nintendo Switch next year.