The Best Games We Played At PAX Aus
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The Best Games We Played At PAX Aus
Dunking. Punching. Driving, Unpacking. There were a slew of amazing games being shown off at PAX Aus 2019, and that doesn't just include big names like Cyberpunk 2077 (which was being demoed in the GameSpot Theatre) and Marvel's Avengers.
The PAX Rising section is always one of the best places to be on the show floor, and this year there were some killer titles that really grabbed our attention: From the insanely fun local-multiplayer games like Wrestledunk Sports, to the incredibly chill and zen-like experiences of Unpacking and Wayward Strand.
Below you'll find 17 games that really caught our eye--we hope that you're as excited by our descriptions of them as we were while playing them.
Be sure to head over to the PAX Aus hub for more great stuff, including the Best Cosplay Of PAX Aus, our first look at Chorus, the new game from Dragon Age writer David Gaider, and a Cyberpunk 2077 interview with CD Projekt Red.
Wrestledunk Sports (Nintendo Switch) | Team Fractal Alligator | TBD
(Wrestledunk Sports was a PAX Aus 2019 Indie Showcase winner)
Wrestledunk is sincerely one of the most fun party-style games I've ever played. You each take control of your customisable rectangular character to participate in various sporting events. The signature game mode is wrestling, in which you'll need to crush opponents with your slam attack to win. The games are best-of rounds and we had some close games which resulted in the background being covered in flames while the cute caster's faces were screaming with excitement.
That's one of the most surprising things about Wrestledunk Sports--it just has so many layers to it mechanically, and such a cool amount of detail--the expressions on the character's faces and things happening in the background really add to the experience. One time, during volleyball, I accidentally spiked the ball on our side of the court and my partner's character pinched its nose in frustration.
It's the kind of game that just encourages fun with every aspect while still being visually clean. Each of the four-game modes are playable with only a few buttons and immediately understood, but also have lots of extra depth. Little things, like hidden controls or just mastering a specific move can elevate an experienced player without putting new folks at a severe disadvantage. Instead, it rewards mastery while still being fun for everyone and there's something incredibly clever about how it manages to achieve this.
We played Wrestledunk Sports while standing on a hard floor for nearly an hour without realising and there are even more modes to come. I can only imagine how great it would be on a couch with friends.
- Hope Corrigan
Exo One (PC) | Exbleative | Release: TBA
(Exo One was a PAX Aus 2019 Indie Showcase winner)
Exo One is the kind of game I immediately wish I wasn't playing on a show floor: it's an experience where you want to switch the lights off, put your headset on, and forget the outside world. You play as a mysterious alien craft, an orb chasing a signal across multiple planets. You could reductively describe Exo One as being like Tiny Wings in 3D. You can hold down A to increase your mass, picking up speed when your orb rolls down slopes and let go on flat surfaces. Hurl your craft up an incline and you can hold the right trigger to flatten out into a disc and briefly become a proper flying saucer.
Exo One is an aesthetic experience above all else. There are no puzzles--you just follow the beam of light in the sky--and while having a good run and moving as fast as possible is more satisfying, it's not essential. There will be 11-12 planets in the final game, I'm told, and they'll vary in terrain and look: in the demo the first planet was covered in desert, while the second felt like an alien installation piece, with spires and metallic valleys and other weird, beautiful architecture.
Exo One is stunning to look at, and the planets you tear across feel enormous. There's a sense of speed and power to Exo One that is intoxicating, and the scale of the whole thing is humbling. There's a narrative hook to Exo One, as well, with hints of the craft being tied to a mysterious galactic event. I'm extremely curious to see how things are going to unfurl in the final release.
- James O'Connor
You can find Exo One on Steam.
Unpacking (PC, Mac, Linux) | Witch Beam | Release: 2020
(Unpacking was a PAX Aus 2019 Indie Showcase winner)
Moving house sits easily on the more stressful side of things to go through in one's life, but Unpacking, from Assault Android Cactus developer's Witch Beam, turns the simple act of unpacking boxes and boxes of all your treasured possessions into a zen, point-and-click puzzle game.
It tells the story of an unseen main character and the changes they're dealing with in their life through the lens of unpacking all of their stuff, and how you go about making it all fit into their ever-changing home. The demo showed a simple three-room place with a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, all rendered in an isometric perspective. I started in the bedroom, opening the first box and pulling out the first item, a pair of underpants, and I placed them in the bottom drawer. It was very easy to get into and within 30 seconds I was busy deciding whether my board games should go on the shelf or my desk next to the bed.
Unpacking does demand you make some sense of item placement in order to progress, but it felt loose enough that it could accommodate a number of different tastes. Its artwork and style were instantly charming, and having no meters or timers means you can happily move things about at your own leisure. The music and vibe are as chilled as it comes, and placing each item in its right place feels pleasantly cathartic, even though I was surrounded by the bustle of the PAX show floor.
- James Swinbanks
You can find Unpacking on Steam.
Ring of Pain (PC, Mac on Steam) | Simon Boxer and Twice Different | Release: TBD
(Ring Of Pain was a PAX Aus 2019 Indie Showcase winner)
Ring of Pain is a Roguelike card-based game, in which the player must find their way out of a dark dungeon with only random items and riddles to help them. Each room presents cards in a ring and only those at the forefront can be interacted with. As a player, you need to choose which direction to cycle through and whether or not to interact with these cards in order to escape.
Your stats, which are upgradable as you play, will have a massive bearing on this and choosing to take on a creature or slide by them and take minimal damage is often key to victory. The more you kill the more you'll have to spend on better items which will help your chances of success, but damage builds up and there's not always a safe way to heal on the horizon. There are also risk vs reward choices: do you try to upgrade or heal at the chance of just taking more damage, or play it safe and wind up underpowered against tough enemies?
I really enjoyed feeling myself get better with each run, but also still being victim to my own hubris and the luck of the loadout. It has a nice loop in that you know you could probably have done better had you just chosen a different path or item along the way. It's easy to jump into new games and each time you learn a little bit more about the inner workings, giving you a better game sense for your next run. This is paired with the intrigue of not really knowing what's going on with the story but having the firm understanding that it probably isn't good, which is aided by the intriguing and creepy art style.
- Hope Corrigan
You can find Ring of Pain on Steam.
Wayward Strand (PC) I Ghost Pattern I Release: 2020
(Wayward Strand was a PAX Aus 2019 Indie Showcase winner)
Wayward Strand is a game with extraordinary levels of chill. You play a young girl, Casey, who has come aboard the floating hospital her mother works on to keep the elderly residents company. She's a budding young journalist who plans on writing about the ship and its patients in her school newspaper, and sets about talking to them to find out about their lives.
Playing the game means making choices--which residents you're going to visit, which parts of the ship you're going to hang out in, what you're going to ask people. Life progresses around you too--if you pass a room at 11 am there might already be a discussion happening in there that would not be happening if you passed by later, or you might visit a resident and find them in the middle of something. The ship is small, but well-realised, and it feels good to exist inside a living place.
The game takes place over three days, and will, according to the team, take under two hours to play all the way through. You won't be able to see or discover everything in one go, and what you choose to prioritise will impact how the game plays out. But don't expect shocking twists or huge escalations--Wayward Strand feels like a calming experience about getting to know people better, and the unique connections the very young sometimes have with the very old. It's lovely, with a clean, beautiful art style and an authentic cast of older Australians. There's something very nostalgic and soothing about it.
- James O'Connor
You can findWayward Strand on Steam.
Death Hall (iOS) | Tom Janson | Out Now
(Death Hall was a PAX Aus 2019 Indie Showcase winner)
If you like to die and you have an iOS device then absolutely take a look at Death Hall. This intricate 2D platformer is incredibly difficult but in ways that feel fair, at least, most of the time. Aesthetically, you're running through a beautifully animated and almost chunky vision of hell, and honestly, that's not too far from the reality. This is a difficult but finely controlled precision platformer, so I never felt mad at my deaths. Instead, I knew that I would happily spend hours trying to perfect my technique to get through this game, if only I had an iOS device.
The controls are tight and even though I was only able to play using the static buttons on a touch screen I still felt like they were never what let me down on a run. There are definitely some things that aren't immediately obvious, like how jumping on enemies can restore your health, or the score multiplier that is added so long as you keep moving. However, this game knowledge makes you feel like you get a little better with every run, more equipped to probably fail and die again.
If you do succeed, then there's still a matter of chasing the high score. Plus, as an added bonus you can get a demon dog who might help you out when you realise you're probably not good enough to play this game. It's a fixed price, there's no microtransactions, runs in portrait and landscape mode, and no one to blame for your failures other than yourself.
- Hope Corrigan
You can find Death Hall on the App Store.
Best Friend Forever (PC, Switch) I Starcolt I Release: February 14, 2020
Best Friend Forever is the sort of high-concept fun that immediately sparks people's imaginations: it's a queer-friendly dating simulator that's also a dog training game. It's funny, but it's not, importantly, a joke. There are six dating options, and the game takes your preferences, pronouns, and romantic intentions seriously--you'll just also have to make sure you're being a good dog parent.
The game's set in Rainbow Bay, where there's one dog for every human, and every person you meet (and eventually romance through Woofr, the in-game dating app) has their own beloved pooch. 'Must love dogs' is a dating requirement here, it seems, and it's likely that your choice of partner will be influenced by their dog as well as their looks and personality. For the PAX demo, my character (for whom you can choose your avatar and pronouns separately, which is appreciated) adopted a sweet Shiba named Cheeseburger, who growled, pooped and 'borked' by my side as I met the game's cast.
The demo did not dig into the romance much, instead focusing on training my lovely new puppy. You're given a constant ticker of their actions, which sometimes require a light reaction--if Cheeseburger poops, for example, you have to tap on them to pick it up. You can plan out how you spend your time with your dog and level up a variety of stats. Best Friend Forever has charm and personality to spare, and feels like a very inclusive, queer-friendly dating game. And, yes, the dogs are all absolutely adorable.
- James O'Connor
You can find Best Friend Forever on Steam.
Dead Static Drive (Xbox) | FanClub | Release: 2020
Dead Static Drive is a stylish driving and survival game that will see you hoon through various damaged and monster-filled environments while scavenging buildings and abandoned areas for anything that could help you survive. Its flat-shaded textures and isometric view give it a unique style, as does its sprinklings of Americana smattered throughout, from the various vehicles you can choose from to the locales you can trawl through.
This demo put me in a stunning hotrod at the foot of a hilly desert road that wound up towards an abandoned gas station and diner. As I pulled up I leapt from the car and through the Diner's rear door. A warning told me I was hungry and needing a bathroom, so I found the nearest toilet so my character could relieve themselves and raided the kitchen for anything edible I could find. After finding a cheeseburger and a large knife, I found a woman on her own out the front. A quick tap of a button convinced her to join my crew, and we jumped back into the car and drove further up the road.
We didn't make it far before a hefty four-legged behemoth rounded the back of the building and started chasing us. I managed to slam the car into a spin before charging back at the monster, smashing it with the hood of the car and knocking it to the ground. I also ended up losing my way, charging off the end of the ramp and we landed upside down on the rocks below, resulting in our fiery demise.
While the demo was quick and a somewhat compressed version of how events should play out in the full release, its driving and scavenging gameplay loop felt good, so I'm keen now to see how it stretches these out over time.
- James Swinbanks
Visit the official Dead Static Drive website.
Espire 1 (Oculus Quest and Rift S, PSVR, Valve Index, HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality) | Digital Lode | Release: TBD
Espire 1 is one of the most traditional looking games I've seen yet in VR. You take the place of an espionage operative who controls a human-shaped drone looking to escape a locked-down facility. The concept helps with the heavy lifting of everything feeling a little odd in VR, but some of the controls are surprisingly intuitive.
Nice mechanical touches, like gripping a wall to climb up and then pushing your hands by your sides to make the final push to the top ledge, grabbing and reloading weapons from different holsters on your body, and manually reloading make this feel like it's worth the potential learning curve of VR.
In my play session, I quickly went from not being able to hit anything when shooting to sleep darting people directly in the head. I didn't quite have time to get used to all the controls, but felt that with a bit more time the uncertainty could likely be overcome.
There's good news for those who suffer from motion sickness as well. Digital Lode has developed a method which narrows the field of view while moving. The developers explained it's meant most people they've encountered who have difficulty with VR have been able to play for upwards of 20 minutes with no issues.
There's also a delightfully Australian touch. The game is set in a secret facility in the Northern Territory. All the voice actors are real Australians, and though some may be hamming it up now and then, hearing genuine-sounding Aussie guards panic about your location is pretty humorous and nicely familiar.
- Hope Corrigan
Conan Chop Chop (PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One) | Mighty Kingdom | Release: Q1 2020
Behind the cutesy exterior of Conan Chop Chop beats the savage heart of a barbarian. I was surprised to discover how hardcore the game is--this is a permadeath roguelike that must be completed in a single run. You battle enemies, collect new weapons, and slowly figure out the shape of the randomly generated world you're in and how to progress through it--and, at some point, you die and have to start again. You don't level up or gain new abilities between runs: you'll be gifted a random item for your next run when you die, but that's it. You just need to really get good at it, and hope that the world you're plonked into is kind.
I played Conan Chop Chop with another player, which lightens the load a bit--you can play with up to four, but the game will not scale at all, so a lone player can have a truly hardcore experience. In our run we managed to find and conquer the first dungeon, finding better weapons and venturing from the opening forest to the more-punishing desert. You could theoretically beat the whole game on your first attempt, but it's unlikely that most players will manage this.
It's not that the combat, at least in the early sections, is all that difficult. But you start with little health and overconfidence can be punished by hidden traps, status effects, and enemies that gang up on you. The combat is simple, but also punchy and satisfying. It felt rewarding every time I found a significant new weapon, or even a healing potion.
The 'chop chop' in the name refers not only to the chopping that makes up much of the game's action, but also the way the game's lore chops numerous different parts out of the Conan mythology and then pieces them together. Conan Chop Chop might be less gory than other Conan adventures, but it keeps the series' brutal spirit intact.
- James O'Connor
You can find Conan Chop Chop on Steam
Necrobarista (PS4, Switch, PC) | Route 59 | Release: 2020
Necrobarista is a beautifully-directed visual novel adventure that tells the story of Maddy, a woman who has inherited the ownership of very special Melbourne cafe named The Terminal. It's a place where the living can go to relax and enjoy some food, but also a stopover for the dead on their way to the other side, who are permitted to stay for a maximum of only 24 hours before leaving and no more.
After introducing the cafe and the scene, the camera cut to a first-person view and I walked forward down a dark alley, toward the singularly lit front door of the cafe, its menu presented out front on a blackboard stand. It ran through the cafe rules, chief of which was that the dead were only permitted to stay for 24 hours. I entered the cafe, at which point the camera takes control, showing Maddy pottering around behind the counter as a confused man enters the building. He doesn't know where he is, and he doesn't appear to know he's dead. A few short lines of dialogue ensue as Maddy explains what's happened to him, before the camera fades and the demo ends.
It was short but captivating, setting up the story along with showing off some of the lovely, anime-inspired 3D art. But the biggest standout for me was its cinematography; each shot felt like it had a purpose, whether it was pointing out a character expression or accentuating part of the superb character dialogue.
- James Swinbanks
You can find Necrobarista on Steam.
Broken Roads (PC) I Drop Bear Bytes I Release: 2021 or later
Sometimes a game shown at a convention is too early in development to demo well, but has such a good concept that you can't help but be excited. Broken Roads is one such game--it's only a few months into what will likely be a long development cycle, but the promise of a Fallout-style CRPG set in a post-apocalyptic Australia is undeniable.
This is a very 'Aussie' take on the genre, with a lot of "mate"s being thrown around and harsh environments to deal with. The surviving settlements are modelled on country towns, so expect a lot of tin sheds and rustic pubs. The demo was limited--we were sent off to another settlement on a trading quest and tested the very work-in-progress turn-based grid combat--but already there's plenty of promise here, especially in the game's dialogue system. In the menu are four different morality system choices: utilitarian, existentialist, nihilist and Machiavellian. You can choose which ones best represent your character, and how narrowly defined their morality is--I opted for a largely Machiavellian character, which gave me some more scheming dialogue options, but with nihilistic tendencies. There's real potential to develop this system into something very interesting.
It's still early days for Broken Roads, and my one major hope is that the game will look back across Australia's history in its depiction of a post-apocalyptic future. Colonial rule was never ceded in Australia, and the indigenous people remain the sovereign owners of the land. There's incredible potential to explore this in a post-apocalyptic setting, and we hope that happens.
- James O'Connor
Rooftop Renegade (PC, Console) | Melonhead Games | TBD
I really like games where speed and fluid movement are key and Rooftop Renegade is all about this. It's a 2D platformer which sees you race over neon-lit rooftops to try to escape an evil corporation who look suspiciously like cops. You use hover blades and have the ability to grind on neon lights, jump, boost, and even pseudo teleport as long as you've built up your meter.
This would be entertaining enough in itself, but the aforementioned corporation wants to slow you down. Positioned in the foreground you can see a shooter, as well as a car behind you. They'll destroy your path, raise obstacles, and otherwise try to mess with you to try to impede your escape. There's even a multiplayer mode where several of your friends can play as the gunner and you can take turns to compete for best times.
There are different classes of gunner so you can try different methods or styles of destruction. I chose the one that let me use automatic aiming to try to destroy the platforms my opponent was using to traverse. It really brought out my competitive side because I knew bringing their time down would make mine more impressive.
Rooftop Renegade is definitely not a finicky or precise platformer. There's plenty of leeway for mistakes and a large focus on trying for better times rather than having levels themselves be difficult. It's very satisfying and smooth to race against the clock, the cops, and maybe even your friends.
- Hope Corrigan
Hot Brass (PC) | Walk WIth Kings | Release: TBA
Hot Brass is for people who miss the SWAT series, although it's more abstracted than those first-person classics. Your character in this top-down co-op tactical shooter isn't represented by a humanoid avatar; instead, you control a circle with an icon in the middle of it. The icon changes depending on what you have equipped: it can show a gun, a flashbang, a charging breach, or other equipment. Every function you can perform, or state you can be in, is visually represented: the circle glows if you're crouching, drips blood if you're bleeding, emits a larger circle if you're yelling. It's an interesting, albeit slightly impersonal system.
Hot Brass wants you to think about every shot fired, encouraging you to apprehend the baddies in the buildings you're infiltrated--also represented by circles, colour-coded to denote their level of hostility--with non-lethal force. Some enemies can be pacified enough to handcuff if you shout at them, while others will need to be stunned with a flashbang. But if things take a turn, all environments are fully destructible: you can breach any wall in the game to get the drop on hostile enemies.
I moved through Hot Brass' tutorial and opening level in two-player co-op, but the game allows for teams of up to four. It's punishing--being shot means limping through the rest of the level--but also tense in a way that makes completing a level very satisfying, even if I shot a lot of perps in a panic. It might not be a modern SWAT, but Hot Brass carries the same spirit.
- James O'Connor
You can find Hot Brass on Steam.
Mega Punchy Golf (PC, Steam VR) | Pillowhead Games | TBD
New flavours of golf games keep trying to impress us with new twists and turns, but I always find there's one thing they lack. You see, part of the joy of golf is hitting something really hard and not worrying too much about the consequences. Mega Punchy Golf understands this on a whole new level by bringing a giant golf ball into a VR space for you to punch as hard as you can.
Using your VR controller, you need to wind your punch back and then lock in the power with the trigger button. You can also throw in a totally innocent hand gesture to get a high power level. Then, you punch forward and watch your hard work pay off in a satisfying manner. This feels especially cool on the Vive Index, which has full finger tracking, so you can really feel like you're punching some balls.
The one thing I did have a little trouble with was the game was clearly built for someone with longer arms than me, but Pillow Head Games is also looking to some customisation around that soon. You can also get around this by playing with regular controls, but that would make the game less punchy, which I do not approve of. Currently, there are five 18-hole courses with more to be added, and talk of adding more support for streaming. Mega Punchy Golf is in early access now on Steam and I think it has the potential to be excellent at both relieving and creating stress.
- Hope Corrigan
You can find Mega Punchy Golf on Steam.
TopplePOP (PC, mobile, unannounced consoles) | Spirit Animal Inc | Release: 2020
TopplePOP is a game that stems from the fundamental human truth that Tetris is wonderful, and any game that kind-of resembles it has a chance of being great too. Thankfully, it does plenty to stand out in its own right, scratching different itches to most other block-based puzzlers.
This is a competitive puzzle game for up to four players, in which your avatar--an animal attached to a bungee cord at the top of the screen--drops shapes into a classic puzzle game basin. Match four blocks of the same colour and they'll vanish, but blocks won't sit flush like they do in Tetris, and are affected by physics. Your objective is to clear the 'Grumbles' in the basin, critters who are colour coded to show which blocks can 'rescue' them by being matched while touching them.
The bungee cord is TopplePOP's big innovation. You can jump down, rotate them, and be precise, but that will take time. Alternatively, you can hurl the block from the top of the screen, dropping it down or throwing it hard, but it might not land where you want. Some blocks are sticky, black blocks cannot be matched and simply accumulate, and various other effects tied to each level can impact your ability to clear them fast.
TopplePOP has been designed with esports in mind, but to me, it seems like a wonderful party game, one that is immediately understandable but which you could also spend dozens of hours mastering. The risk/reward inherent in how you throw the blocks leads to the kind of wild, messy, funny chaos that keeps you coming back for more.
- James O'Connor
You can find TopplePOP on Steam.
Chaos Tavern (PC, Nintendo Switch) | DragonBear Studios | Release: TBA
Perhaps better known on the PAX Aus floor as "that game that looks like Overcooked" Chaos Tavern actually has a lot more hidden up it's wholesome and cute sleeves. You and up to three of your friends are medieval fantasy style adventurers, only today your adventure is to run the typical scenic tavern. You'll need to pour and serve drinks, brew potions (which you can also drink), cook steaks, keep thieves away, and even deal with monsters. It's an intensely focussed task management game, but there's even more than that under the hood.
In this demo, I could see snippets of Chaos Tavern's story and character come through. Turns out the tavern is actually owned by an evil wizard who's constantly trying to make you fail. Those monsters I mentioned before, might just want a good feed and some love, and I was posed with a few confronting morality choices along the way. I'm also pretty certain I was being flirted with at various points--and I mean, who could blame them really--I, and everything else in the game, was very pleasing on the eye.
The other really refreshing aspect is the intermixing of Australian myths and themes. I noted tones of a didgeridoo under the typical tavern music and a lyrebird delivers your mail. All too often fantasy games focus on European culture and seeing some things a little closer to home in the mix was a really nice touch.
Chaos Tavern is absolutely a game I could see whipping out with some friends to see how long our concentration could hold while we yell and laugh at one another. It also seems to have the depth to keep single players enthralled to unravel the story.
- Hope Corrigan