PAX West 2019’s best, worst, and weirdest indie games

PAX has always been a haven for indie games since they proliferate the multiple floors in a way that easily overwhelm the AAA titles on display. But given that breadth, it’s easy to lose track of those indie games and decipher what’s good, what’s not so good, and what’s just straight up weird. Even though no human can possibly sample everything on display, here’s a rundown of what those good, bad, and weird indie games were at PAX West 2019.

The Good Indies of PAX 2019 | Backbone

The good, bad, and the weird indies of PAX West 2019

Backbone is a dystopian noir thriller set in a classist society where a gruff detective sniffs out a case that ends up being more than he bargained for. But that detective is a raccoon and that world is full of anthropomorphized animals.

ALSO: How promising detective game Backbone was crafted from Russian oppression and raccoon attacks

While it could easily rest on its laurels of funny animal people, Backbone goes beyond that and has clever, snappy writing that comfortably balances out its darker tone and jazzy atmosphere. The stealth systems were a bit unforgiving but this is still incredibly early and won’t release until sometime in the next year or two. Regardless, its positives meshed together quite well, making this one of the best games of the show.

The Good Indies of PAX 2019 | Cyber Shadow

The good, bad, and the weird indies of PAX West 2019

It shouldn’t be surprising that Cyber Shadow is as slick as it is. Being published by Shovel Knight developer Yacht Club, this 16-bit platformer takes parts from Ninja Gaiden, Contra, and Mega Man and wraps them in its own style. Like Shovel Knight, this game just feels sublime to play because of its impeccable controls and good, challenging level design. After about a decade in development, Cyber Shadow is finally about to come out and it’s about damn time.

The Good Indies of PAX 2019 | Skater XL

The good, bad, and the weird indies of PAX West 2019

Skater XL is janky in a ton of ways. The animation is rather crude. It doesn’t have the best visual fidelity. Your skater avatar looks like his soul got sucked out just to be able to ride a skateboard. But it nails the skateboarding feel many have been pining for since EA has neglected to feed that underserved audience and Tony Hawk’s death (the games, not the skater). Its two-stick foot control and physics are reminiscent of Skate but different, allowing for a ton of depth without sacrificing accessibility. Given how it plays in this early state, it appears as though developer Easy Day Studios went for feel first and everything else second. And that’s the right approach for a game like this, especially since those tangential aspects aren’t as important and will likely be addressed before its full launch anyway.

The Good Indies of PAX 2019 | Blasphemous

The good, bad, and the weird indies of PAX West 2019

2D Soulslike platformers with a pixelated art style aren’t exactly hard to find but regardless, Blasphemous still sticks out. Instead of deliberate controls native to most entries in the genre, Blasphemous moves swiftly and allows players to jump, dodge, and parry without having to wait for long animations to play out. Combat and platforming fill out its nonlinear levels that are full of tough enemies that will spill your guts if you slip up or don’t pay attention. It’s difficult but it’s also difficult to say how this will all play out in the final product since games like this require extra care to avoid devolving into sadistic, unfair bloodbaths. But Blasphemous, thanks to its controls and unique Spanish-inspired art, looks like it has potential to be one of the special ones when it releases on September 10.

The Good Indies of PAX 2019 | Super Meat Boy Forever

The good, bad, and the weird indies of PAX West 2019

Everything worth saying about Super Meat Boy Forever from E3 2018 still applies to it for PAX West 2019. It has pitch perfect platforming controls, the same charming Super Meat Boy tone, and a ton of levels assembled through procedural generation. And the best part is that it’s finally almost out so we can’t stop talking about it and start playing it.

The Good Indies of PAX 2019 | Demon’s Tilt

The good, bad, and the weird indies of PAX West 2019

Video game pinball is usually, well, just pinball. But Demon’s Tilt is the most video game-ass pinball you’ll see. Very little about it is realistic. The ball still shoots around predictably with some semblance of real-world physics but the table transforms and animates in a way only video pinball could achieve. Unlike real pinball tables, these digital tables feel alive and are constantly brimming with colorful effects and a catchy, fast-paced chiptune soundtrack. By combining all of these gamey elements with the real-world addictive nature of pinball, Demon’s Tilt looks to combine the best of both worlds in one vivid package.

The Good Indies of PAX 2019 | Indivisible

The good, bad, and the weird indies of PAX West 2019

Famed Skullgirls developer Lab Zero is stepping away from the fighting game genre and making something entirely different with Indivisible. Well, mostly different, given how this RPG Metroidvania still apes some concepts from the fighting genre. Party members are locked to a face button and players use that button to attack or defend with that certain character.

Timing your offensive button presses allows you to perform combos and aerial juggles not previously possible while defending at just the right time saves you from some damage. It’s active and turn-based in a way that gracefully takes the best parts from both styles. Indivisible is also a Metroidvania, meaning you’ll have to do some decent platforming between fights with the abilities you acquire. The game seems to be combining both genres quite well and shows that trying something completely different can work out.

The Bad Indies of PAX 2019 | No Straight Roads

The good, bad, and the weird indies of PAX West 2019

No Straight Roads has a promising concept: EDM versus rock music in a musical world with a Psychonauts-like exaggerated art style. And while its music was solid and its visuals were unique, the gameplay and performances weren’t quite playing on the same tempo. The boss fight on display was too simplistic and hardly required any movement to beat, making it a boring slog that went on for too long. Its sluggish controls also didn’t help either since the few moments where you get to hit things or dodge attacks always felt sticky. Mayday and Zuke, the two protagonists, were initially charming but quickly became grating after cringeworthy dialogue. No Straight Roads has time to come together and it has to if it doesn’t want to be some forgotten B-side when it comes out next year.

The Bad Indies of PAX 2019 | Groundhog’s Day: Like Father, Like Son

The good, bad, and the weird indies of PAX West 2019

Even though Sony is publishing this one and thus isn’t a “true” indie game, Groundhog’s Day: Like Father, Like Son didn’t seem like it deserved the name of the coveted classic film. It mostly appeared to be filled with weird mini-games such as shrinking down into a coffee machine to shoot coffee beans, fix said coffee machine, spray paint graffiti on the wall, and more. Perhaps it makes more sense within the context of the full game, but it looked like random VR tech demos with a known film name slapped on it.

The Weird Indies of PAX 2019 | Wanderlust Travel Stories

The good, bad, and the weird indies of PAX West 2019

Wanderlust Travel Stories is a game about traveling around and telling stories as its title implies. It plays out like an interactive novel where you read through an elaborate travel journal while also picking certain options and shaping how your explorer sees the world. While not exactly a Telltale game in that regard, Wanderlust is more about the wonder of travel and the beauty of the world that many people will never see. It’s a calm, serene experience that won’t be for everyone, especially when it’s crammed on a show floor literally feet away from a game like, say, Blair Witch.

The Weird Indies of PAX 2019 | Liberated

liberated

“Weird” can mean any number of different things, but in Liberated‘s case, it means “unique.” It’s an interactive comic book where the pages turn and panels shift as the dystopian story unfolds to the player. That dark tale gives birth to a dilapidated world where personal freedoms have been put in a chokehold for the sake of “security” in a way that is disturbingly similar to many real-life authoritarian regimes. While depressing, this basis in reality gives the game an interesting hook, even if some of the dialogue was inconsistent in a few a areas.

There are also playable segments too but those sections suffered from poor controls and punishing difficulty spikes. A narrative-heavy game like this needs to be moving forward at all times and repeatedly dying and fumbling with the controls can often kill the story that the whole experience is focused around. But Liberated is quite early and even though it still has a few more months to get over the finish line, its unique comic book presentation, atmosphere, and intriguing premise show promise in spite of its janky gameplay.

The Weird Indies of PAX 2019 | Tracks – The Toy Train Tracks Set Simulator Game

The good, bad, and the weird indies of PAX West 2019

Building a long line of wooden train tracks in Tracks – The Toy Train Tracks Set Simulator Game doesn’t seem like it would suited well for a video game, but in an odd, soothing way, it is. While there are more objective-based modes, Tracks’ sandbox is cathartic as you build grand roller coaster tracks in a blank, white room. Once you’re done with your opus, you can set the train to go through your creation with the camera in the conductor’s seat giving you full view of the action (or “action,” really). It is geared toward younger audiences but there’s a childish allure to just compiling an elaborate maze and watching a tiny train chug through it.

The Weird Indies of PAX 2019 | Carrion

The good, bad, and the weird indies of PAX West 2019

Carrion has that Devolver Digital look. It’s hyperviolent, has a retro art style, and stars a peculiar protagonist. You play as a mutant red, blob that gobbles up everything but instead of representing fear of Communists, it just represents a big angry pile of goo that wants to take revenge on its captors. This amorphous goop slings around the environment in a Spider-Man sort of way and doesn’t typically jump around to traverse the environment. Combat is also odd as you grab guys with your tentacles and fling them around rather than hitting a button to just attack. Gathering abilities changes how you can get around and progress and consuming people makes you even bigger like Mutant Blobs Attack but more disgusting. It’s weird even by Devolver Digital’s standards but that’s the type of weird video games could always use more of.