Indie Games at PAX AUS 2014

November 7, 2014

One of the great things about the PAX conventions over the years has been their support for the independent gaming scene. Since the beginning, the expos have showcased this kind of development, and when the first Australian PAX ran last year, it made an extra effort to show off Australia’s thriving indie development community. With the move to Jeff’s Shed, PAX AUS 2014’s indie coverage was even bigger and better.

With so things to see and do at PAX AUS, I wasn’t able to see every indie game on display. I did get to a few, though, and here are the highlights.

Black Annex
According to its own website, Man Fight Dragon’s Black Annex is a love letter to the classic PC games that its sole developer, Lance McDonald, grew up playing. Simply looking at the game makes this evident, with its beautifully crafted isometric pixel-art visuals and a great electronic soundtrack (provided by Abducted by Sharks). That means that the Syndicate vibes the game emits are entirely intentional.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Black Annex is also one you can’t see: not only do the visuals hearken back to older PC titles, but the game itself is programmed in BASIC. But this is no GORILLA.BAS. It’s a fast-paced strategic action game that demands quick thinking and careful planning as you make your way through each level.

It might take a little while to get the hang of Black Annex, and it’s another in the recent trend of indie titles that aren’t shy about brutally punishing your mistakes (see also: Hotline Miami). Once I did get used to it, I found myself enjoying the game very much. The game is currently in the late stages of development, and will ultimately be released for Windows, with Mac and Linux versions to hopefully follow.

You can find out more about the game at the Black Annex website.

Ninja Pizza Girl

Disparity Games’ Ninja Pizza Girl takes place in a dystopian future where pizza delivery is done by large megacorporations, and the protagonist, Gemma, works for one of the few remaining independent pizza shops. She has to contend not only with pantsless customers, but also the worst enemy any teenage girl has to face: other teenagers.

The game itself plays a lot like the iOS version of Mirror’s Edge, with the same continuous running style coupled by button presses to jump and slide. These also double as attacks when enemies are near, making the game very easy to pick up and play. Levels themselves are timed, and the game is all about delivering the pizzas as fast as possible. Gemma herself doesn’t take physical damage. Instead, every hit is to her self-esteem, and her mood. Take too many hits, and the game’s visuals wash out from their bright colours to dull greys, before she eventually just gives up in despair.

The concept for the game came about when Disparity Games’ two founders, husband-and-wife team Jason and Nicole Stark, were stuck for ideas, and looked to their four daughters for inspiration. The girls talked about their real-life experiences with their peers, and this fed into Ninja Pizza Girl. In fact, the couple’s eldest daughter, Raven, is responsible for much of the game’s artwork and visual appeal.

I’m a big fan of not only the actual game on offer with Ninja Pizza Girl, but also the broader message it’s communicating. From what I saw at PAX AUS, Disparity have successfully balanced making the game fun with making its message clear.

You can find out more about Ninja Pizza Girl at its official website

(Full disclosure: I backed Ninja Pizza Girl on Kickstarter.)

One More Line
I didn’t spend huge amounts of time with Over The Top Tower Defence developer SMG Studio’s new title, One More Line, but it stood out for a couple of reasons. First, the game was set up with a large red button for interaction Second, the game has a very clean look that made me think of some kind of animated corporate logo.

The general idea is to swing around nodes on a vertically scrolling path and not crash into the walls. It takes a particular rhythm to get right, and failure is generally instant and sudden. Pressing the button (or touching the screen in the mobile version of the game) causes you to shoot out a line that attaches to the node and lets you swing around it.

There isn’t much more to say other than it looks like one of those great mobile games that can be played for barely even a minute and feel like you’ve had some fun. Look for it on mobile devices soon.

Sir Patches

Sharing the booth with One More Line was Sir Patches, a game based on a popular picture of a sleeping girl being defended from monsters by a brave teddy bear wielding a sword and shield. If that idea sounds adorable to you, then Sir Patches is going to be right up your alley.

As the titular brave teddy bear, your goal is to walk around the room of a young girl while she sleeps and take down any monsters that appear before they reach the bed and harm her. The touchpad version I played had fairly simple movement controls, and combat was done mostly automatically, just by being near enough to a monster to attack it. Sir Patches will level up after gaining experience and this grants access to more powerful attacks.

I really liked the concept of this game, and while I had some trouble seeing the very dark visuals in the PAX AUS environment, I felt that the game was shaping up to be something really fun. Or maybe I was swayed by the very large Sir Patches plushie outside their booth.

Majestic Nights

Majestic Nights is a story-driven isometric action-adventure game set in an alternate 1980s where all conspiracy theories are true. Imagine a sort-of Miami Vice meets The X-Files, and you’re in the rough ballpark. It uses graphic novel-style artwork with a 3D isometric view, which makes it stand out.

Majestic Nights is very much focused on telling a story, and has you playing through the game as two different characters: Cardholder and Cal. Cardholder is an intelligence operative who knows much about the conspiracies of the world, and Cal is a private investigator with the traditional private investigator troubled and mysterious past.

The game will be released as six episodes, the first of which has just been released on Steam (there’s also a free Episode Zero that can be downloaded as the demo for the main game). Each episode can be individually purchased, and there’s also a season pass that will also net you a copy of the game’s excellent soundtrack.

You can find out more about Majestic Nights at its official website (Warning: contains autoplaying preview video).

Metal Dead Encore

I will admit I hadn’t heard of Metal Dead before I started talking to the developers of Metal Dead Encore. The game concerns the exploits of two metalheads caught up in a zombie invasion when they discover that the best way to defeat the zombies is through the power of heavy metal.

In the sequel, Metal Dead Encore, a rock festival has come to town, bringing with it the associated noise and devastation. To make matters worse, a mutant landshark (don’t ask) escapes from a lab and starts making a right mess of things. It’s once again up to the main characters, Malcolm and Ronnie, to save the world.

The game itself is an adventure game in the tradition of the classic Lucasarts titles and the more recent Runaway series, among others. The visuals remind of of something that might appear on Adult Swim, cartoonish but definitely not for younger viewers. The playable demo reinforced this by having the player send a zombie helicopter pilot through the rotating blades of the helicopter in a spectacularly bloody fashion.

The game looks like a fun follow-up to the 2012 original, and is expected to be released in 2015.

Boy Goes To Space
The stark black-and-white graphics and simple pixel art make it clear from the outset that New Zealand-based One Legged Crab’s Boy Goes To Space is going to be one of those “it’s all about the experience” kind of games.

The game itself concerns a boy who goes to space by swinging so hard on his swing that he ends up flying through a field of marshmallows, before getting into a rocket and flying off to space. That’s… kind of all there is to it, really. The stark atmosphere is helped by a really nice ambient soundtrack, and the whole game has this dreamlike quality.

But you don’t need me to tell you about it, as you can play a version of Boy Goes To Space right now in your web browser.

Quarries of Scred

Anyone who went to the retro gaming area at PAX AUS would have seen the faux-wood panel arcade machine that contained Quarries of Scred. Looking at the screen they would have seen something that looked like it stepped out of the Apple II era of personal computing. A complex-looking screen of simplistic, almost ASCII-like graphics make it clear that this is a game from the oldschool.

Now, the truth is, I never actually played Quarries of Scred at PAX AUS. I watched it, and I spoke to its developer about the game at length. However, it was when one of the game’s top players, Stacey “DrCurlytek” Borg, explained the intricacies of it to me that I really perked up. While it would be impossible to relay the details of that wonderful conversation, I did gain a deep understanding of the mechanics of Quarries of Scred.

The game is fundamentally a reworked version of the classic Boulder Dash, but with new complexity that makes it much more strategic and fun. The goal is to collect dirt, gems and ore from a vast quarry, while avoiding the falling rocks, dropbears, and other hazards. Merely getting these items is only a fraction of the battle, as you also need to take them to the teleporter at the top of the quarry (or at the very bottom if you’re brave). While there, you can buy various weapons and tools, such as mines and lasers, to help you get more gems in the quarry.

Success in Quarries of Scred comes from carefully planning your moves, and the game is designed such that you can take as much time as necessary to make each move, something that may have contradicted the arcade cabinet setup.

Quarries of Scred is available now from its website for PC.