PAX Indie Megabooth Preview (Part 1 of 3: Below and Aztez)

PAX is always an invigorating experience, the overwhelming electric assault on your senses complemented by thunderous roar of explosions and anything else big-budget development can dream up.  After battling 3-hour lines and shoving your way through the swarms of crowds gaping at the booths set up to resemble a video game monuments.  After you slash your way through the crowds, noise, and everything else accompanying the video game metropolis, you come to a small neighborhood of serenity.

Serenity may not be a phrase often associated with independent video game development.  The people behind the small titles which flood the Steam marketplace and other digital retail providers work long hours with little security.  So often video game news is aggressively directed toward the blockbuster titles coming this holiday season from big name publishers, but PAX provides a unique opportunity to give the smaller developers an opportunity to stand out and be counted.  There is always far too much to cover, but I’ll try and highlight some of the best games I got see at PAX East 2014 indie megabooth.

 

Below

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Boasting a large presence in the Indie Megabooth was the joint-booth of Capybara Games and Double Fine, the former showing off their intriguing rogue-like, Below.  The latest effort from the studio popular for the hits Super Time Force and Superbrothers: Swords and Sworcery EP was announced last E3 during the Microsoft Press Conference.  While at the time Xbox One was the only platform the game was confirmed for, Capy recently announced the game would also find a home on Steam. PC gamers should rejoice because this is a title they won’t want to miss out on.

While others played, I watched over their shoulder and tried to get a feel for the game.  Below’s aesthetic is instantly magnetic, grabbing your attention and holding it hostage.  Its environments forgo reality and paint a portrait of dark hues with a terrain made up of geometrical shapes.  The screen is top-down and pulled out to make your character feel diminutive, a small warrior wandering a dark beach in the rain surrounded by large cliffs accented with broken stairs and other ruins.

Below’s aesthetic conveys the feeling of isolation, wandering through a seemingly abandoned island filled with ruins and other hints life might have once flourished.  It creates mental links to such games as Journey and Zelda.  An air of danger lingers as you traverse the gloomy world Capy has crafted.  Dark crevices are scattered about the map, foreboding yet filled with the promise of adventure.

Getting to go hands-on with the game, I was surprised by Below’s verticality.  Instead of limiting the player to a wide plane, Below encourages the player to explore upwards, with stairs and mountainsides to climb leading to dark and ominous caves.  I ignore these caves at first, simply enjoying the exploration elements Below provides.  I like wandering about, taking in the expanse of the game. The design seems vast, offering much to discover.  Even when I enter a cave, I don’t initially find enemies, instead I wander through, trying to take in the dark, oppressing atmosphere.  

Stepping into a cave is where Below’s experience changes.  The excellent score of Jim Guthrie kicks in,  inspiring fear and a sense of adventure at the same time.  The screen goes completely dark, except for a small pool light surrounding my character in a small portion – maybe an eighth – of the screen.  I slowly progress forward through the cavernous black, discovering more of the cave as the darkness yields to my lantern.

Enemies in these caves vary from the traditional bats to monsters of a more intimidating nature.  The combat in Below is difficult, you wield a sword and shield, and blocking/dodging is incredibly important.  A hit from an enemy causes your character to start bleeding out, a condition which can only be remedied by drinking a health potion.  The easy comparison for the game’s unforgiving nature is Dark Souls and the repercussions for death can be punishing, but there is more a of roguelike nature to Below than Dark Souls.  

After a couple of deaths, I felt the need to yield my controller to another eagerly awaiting player.   Below is an atmospheric, challenging game which inspires adventure and caution at the same time.  It’s wide scope and overwhelming size makes you feel insignificant, as does its roguelike nature.  It is the sense of discovery, the sense of mystery that begs you to dig deeper into Below’s world, it keeps you wanting more no matter how many deaths or monsters await.

 

Aztez

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While talking to Matthew Wegner, the self described, “highly versatile programmer, metagame designer, and biz dev guy on Aztez,” half of the two-man team working on Aztez, the designer explained the game was his partner’s love-letter to brawlers.  You may not know Wegner or his partner Ben Ruiz, but if you follow the terrifying Threes-Robot stream or speak to the team in person, you quickly realize the duo’s brilliance. Their talent also comes through on Aztez’ beautiful, well-crafted, and finely-tuned experience.

When asked about his inspiration for a brawler love-letter Luiz conjures such titles as Bayonetta and the coin-operated Capcom classics.  This arcade-feel is not quite as present in Aztez’ arena-brawling, but more in the game’s difficulty, which is designed to brutally dispatch players, forcing them to start from scratch. The team talked about a perfect playthrough lasting about 90 minutes, but the game could end faster, given the difficulty.

In Aztez you play as the ruler of the Aztec empire, 100 years before the invasion of the Spanish Conquistadors who seek to topple your rule.  Violent outbreaks and insubordination ripple throughout your empire causing you to get your hands dirty in an attempt to maintain or extend your control.  As violence breaks out across your dominion, you select territories which you then engage in arena-based brawling sequences.

Aztez’ combat is tight and feels excellent.  You can cycle through weapons, altering your reach and damage, and have a shield equipped to defend yourself from attacking enemies.  Jumping allows you to get the drop on your foes or avoid their incoming charge, these jumps suspend you in the air for a few seconds and can be extended by swinging your weapon.  As you fight, dodge, and block your way through hordes of enemy you can absorb their blood to increase your life meter, the imagery of red blood being sucked into your body is the only break from the black-and-white aesthetic.

As people battled through Aztez’ demo-arena, it became increasingly clear what the developer was talking about in regards to the game’s difficulty.  Hardly any of the players I watched – or myself – were able to survive the the 3 minutes demo.  Aztez clearly will have a learning curve, but anyone who loves a good brawler and appreciates some deeper fighting elements should check out Aztez and Colorblind Studios…the Threes-Robot isn’t bad either.

 

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