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Everything Action at PAX Online 2021

By Zach

Even though things have been improving in some places around the US, the folks behind PAX decided to hold off on bringing back a huge con like PAX East in person, and instead, we had the second-ever PAX Online last weekend from July 15th to the 18th.  Fans from around the world could tune in to four different livestreams featuring panels with developers, game shows, and concerts, chat in the PAX Online Discord server, or get exclusive merch from various vendors. And of course, check out tons of demos.  We logged on, binged streams, and downloaded demos to play, and you can check out our event recaps below.

Event Presentation

Last year’s first PAX Online featured a great way to navigate around the various vendors and developers who were participating with a virtual Expo Hall that featured a map that you could click through and “tour” the floor, visiting each booth and seeing what that company was featuring, see trailers, buy merch and more. It was a great and fun way to experience the virtual event and was an admirable attempt to try and replicate the experience of walking around the in-person PAX events. However, instead of the intuitive expo hall map, this year the “show floor” was a simple list to scroll through. You would click on a developer or game title and it would take you to another page where you got some basic info. But they didn’t even have trailers and you had to click through yet again to either the Steam page or the developer or game’s website to get any meaningful information.  Some games were also split off separately from their developer’s page but were also featured there, so there was a lot of duplicate information.

The event’s theme of “Camp PAX” was also really nowhere to be found on the actual PAX Online page except for with the merch available and ultimately Steam had more theming and presentation on their page than the actual PAX website.  It’s pretty disappointing especially compared to last year and it’s not clear why they couldn’t have replicated the experience of last year for this year’s event.  Hopefully, if there are more PAX Online events in the future, they can return to the more fun and intuitive layout of the first PAX Online from 2020.  The Discord and Twitch streams were what you would expect, with the Discord server featuring many different rooms to check out and chat in and even special events like a text-based RPG to participate in. The Twitch streams were spread across four channels and featured tons of different events to check out, from live streaming demos of games to audience participation events like Jackbox games to interviews with game industry personalities past and present.  The Discord and Twitch were both high quality throughout the event and it’s just a shame that the main page’s presentation for the event was seemed so lackluster.

Streams

There were nearly 8 hours of content to watch each day, starting from the afternoon to the evening times. It was fun to pop into different channels to watch a random topic being discussed and see the chat reactions. Here are our thoughts on a few streams we tuned into.

Zack Hartzman, Mike Washburn, and Steve Isaacs held a discussion about the role of games have become powerful tools for learning. These industry professionals each utilize games to create new opportunities to reach students and expand how people and absorb knowledge with engaging material.

This stream was all about the worst and best toilets to visit in video games. From the grossest place to drop trou to the nices place to relax, this hilarious panel went into great details about video game bathrooms throughout gaming history.

As avid fans of Tetris, it is always a pleaser to see how Tetris holds up its debut in 1984. This panel went into the history and the community that surrounds this block stacking game. It is really a cult phenomenon title that seems to grow stronger with each iteration.

Pat Contri, Alex Faciane, Norman Caruso, and Kelsey Lewin discuss their best hidden retro gems that few people ever played or seen. It’s funny to think with the modern conveniences of the Internet it would be easy to index all sorts of video games. However, they discuss multiple titles that manage to slip past the public and land right into obscurity.

Indie Showcase Demos

Just like a regular in-person PAX event, the main thing we like to do is spend a lot of time checking out a bunch of demos and this PAX Online was no exception. Steam made it easy to grab demos available throughout the weekend, while others were made available directly from the developers themselves.

Lab Rat (Zach): Coming from Chump Squad and AAA game vet Gwen Frey, Lab Rat is something that fans of games like Portal should definitely add to their watchlist.  Much like Portal, the game is set in a strange test lab where your character has become a seemingly unwilling participant.  A GLADOS style AI named S.A.R.A guides you through various tests.  Unlike Portal, which was played from a first-person perspective, Lab Rat calls to mind the classic game Sokoban and its many imitators as you have to push and pull various objects and get them to a certain point to beat the stage.

Things start out fairly simple but the puzzles quickly ramp up as you get introduced to concepts like turrets that will “charge” the sides of the crates you are pushing with different polarity and if your character is not the same polarity, you can push, pull or jump over that side of the crate.  In between levels, there’s the Portal-style humor where S.A.R.A will ask you survey questions or offer deceptively cheery updates about your progress.  One of the fun things is that the game incorporates all of the players who are playing the game and shows you what other players chose for the surveys or how you compare to them performance-wise.  The game has a simple but well-realized industrial lab aesthetic and the gameplay is deceptively simple and addictive.  If you’re a puzzle fan, definitely keep an eye out in the spring of next year when Lab Rat releases.

Terracotta (Chris): Developed Appnormals Teams, Terracotta is a fantasy action puzzler that is based on the Chinese Terracotta Army. Taking place in 1974, a terracotta soldier named Tao is partially transformed into a human thru magical energy. Tao is empowered with a mystical YIN power, which gives him the ability to phase between the time of the ruins of the Qin Kingdom in 1974 to Ancient China of 206 BC. He is able to channel his magic to manipulate his surroundings. Tao journeys to free his fellow terracotta soldiers and uncover secrets of the Qin Kingdom.

Terracotta has a focus on being a non-combative action puzzler that not only lets players solve puzzles, but uses defensive mechanics to overcome enemies. Tao has the allow to create walls of energy that will shield him from attacks, but it could also be used to reflect projectiles or trap enemy pursuits. This adds in a level of skill to not only judge puzzle-solving mechanics but time enemy attacks while you figure out the solutions. The pixel artwork is great, it feels like a mix of SNES 16-bit graphics with some modern updates to add some fun perspectives with camera angles. Terracotta is still in early development, but the demo was pretty polished to try out many of the puzzle mechanics and explore the great fantasy setting.

Death Trash (Zach): Coming from developer Crafting Legends, Death Trash is a pixel-art RPG that is heading into Early Access on August 5th.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world where Lovecraftian horrors have engulfed the planet, your character, who you have free reign over appearance and skills, gets banished from their sanctuary and cast out into the dangerous outside world.  You’ll explore and gain quests and battle dangers like mutants and enemy raiders with either melee or ranged weaponry.  The melee combat is simple move-in and bash mechanic but the ranged combat requires the use of the right thumbstick if you are using a controller and plays a bit like a twin-stick shooter.

The game has great pixel-art and a disgusting and disturbing setting where giant monsters of bloody flesh are everywhere.  Along with combat skills, there’s a wide range of other abilities you can decide to specialize in, including dialogue that can let you talk your way out of situations and animal knowledge that may let you use some of the creatures of the world to your advantage.  There’s also stealth, psi powers, and cyberpunk hacking as well and the setting and storyline feels a bit like a cross between Fallout, Lovecraft, and Shadowrun and it plays like the old-school Fallouts but with the modern pixel-art aesthetic.  It seems like a deep game with plenty of things to explore and lots of ways to customize things to your playstyle.  Along with Early Access on Steam in August, the game will also be available on Xbox, Playstation, and Switch at some point in the future.

For the People (Chris): It takes a calm mind and an iron grip to control people, but with the right resources and management, it’s possible to lead all the people. Whatever they want to or not. Brezg Studio and 101XP invite players to see if they can run a communist state in For the People, a management sim title told as a visual novel. The game puts you in the of Francis River, a young up-and-coming government worker that navigates the political game of serving the betterment of his community or given into greed. It’s Francis’s job to manage resources and spot potential threats to the government, making allies and enemies along the way. The game is mostly a text-based title, that is told through slightly animated cutscenes and paperwork to come thru. Each day that Francis goes to work, players approve government spending and make deals with fellow workers and rivals. These decisions have big consequences and will make jobs easier or harder for Francis to handle. For the People is a game that works well for players that are more interested in a plot drive manage title than a complex city builder. The game mechanics are not deep, but the game offers a few variables to change the storyline and see different outcomes.

Orx (Zach): Combining tabletop gaming elements with tower defense, Orx seems like an awesome strategy game.  Coming from developer John Bell and published by Critical Reflex, Orx has you building up a kingdom using various cards in your deck.  You build roads, castles and add troops and you have to try and get things set up strategically before the Orx arrive and try to destroy everything.  Your main goal is to protect your Castle Heart, which is the first building you start with.  If the Heart falls, you lose.  You can create other castles to defend the heart by combining walls and you can build roads that lead to villages and farmland to increase your gold count.  Each card costs a certain amount of gold and if you’re low, you have to wait until you build enough backup.  There are also spells and buffs you give to your soldiers and buildings.  After a certain amount of time, the Orx arrive and try to invade and whatever defenses you have built up will have to try and hold them off, although you can still build and add to your kingdom while the Orx is attacking.

If you manage to hold off the Orx, anything they managed to destroy will be restored but the next wave will be even stronger.  The game has a fantastic visual style that really feels like an old-school board game, like something in the vein of Chainsaw Warrior or similar Games Workshop products and the gameplay calls to mind board games like Carcassone as you have to try and build both a functional network of roads and villages/farms but also strong defenses and you also have to build so you can reach special points on the map to unlock more powerful cards.  There are multiple factions to play as but the demo only has the Rune Knights, who have a set of rune spells that can boost their damage or health temporarily.  The game has great addictive gameplay that will make you want to do “just one more” run if you fail and try some new strategy or way of building out your kingdom.  The game is expected to be out sometime in 2022.

Metal Mind (Zach): Metal Mind is an upcoming top-down roguelike shooter that adds some Armored Core style mechanics to the fast-paced shooter gameplay of something Enter the Gungeon.  You play as a recently awoken robot who is tasked with battling the oppressive AWC, a government agency that is arresting and enslaving robots to prevent them from gaining sentience and independence.  You battle through different levels and, like most roguelikes, you get a choice of different paths as you progress but if you die, you get sent back to the main hub and will have to start a new run from the beginning.  The main thing that makes Metal Mind unique is the customization that it introduces.  If you’ve played something like Armored Core or other mech-based games in the past, Metal Mind adds similar mechanics as you can add pieces you find throughout your run to your robot, but you have to be aware of things like weight.  You can make a beast of a robot but it’s going to be super slow and on the flipside, you can make an incredibly nimble and speedy robot that probably won’t be able to take too much damage.  There seem to be tons of ways to design your robot and you should be able to get a robot that suits your playstyle if you can find the right parts.  You usually get at least one part after clearing each room and you also earn currency that you can use to buy specific parts if you reach a store/vendor in the stage.  The gameplay is extremely fast-paced and uses a twin-stick style where you move with the left stick and aim with the right and there are various weapons you can get and equip like shotguns, rocket launchers, machine guns, etc.  Much like the weight stat for parts, the weapons have various stats like heat that have to be weighed and powerful weapons will heat up rapidly if overused and can damage your bot.  The parts and customization adds an interesting layer on top of the solid shooting and roguelike base and if you’re a fan of games like Enter the Gungeon, you should definitely keep an eye out for Metal Mind.  The release date is currently TBD.

Blind Fate: Edo no Yami (Chris): Samurais and demons get tossed into a cyberpunk world in Blind Fate: Edo no Yami. Developed Troglobytes Games and published by 101XP, Blind Fate follows Yami, a rebuilt cyber samurai that is awakened by an AI to protect a New Edo period in Japan.  With enhanced senses, a sharp blade, and a hand cannon, Yami travels across ruins and neon light cityscapes of rampaging robotic monsters. At the surface level, Blind Fate looks similar to Ninja Gaiden but exploring the game reveals an intricate combat mechanic. Yami is a blind samurai that uses his robotic sensors to detect feedback. He can visualize his surroundings by picking up heat signatures and sounds. Because he cannot normally detect enemies without using his enhanced senses, fighting enemies and navigating platforms have a sort of puzzle aspect them. This was not a simple hack and slash title, it took some practice to toggle sensors to find enemies and attack, but once you get the rhythm the game really opens up. This demo showed a few of the senor mechanics, weaponry, and areas to explore. The sound quality was great and definitely puts you into the headspace of Yami. This will be an interesting title to check out once its released later this year.

The Darkest Tales (Zach): Seemingly taking inspiration from the same DeviantArt image that inspired The Rock to make a movie and stuff like American McGee’s Alice series, The Darkest Tales is set in a dark fairy tale world where you play as a teddy bear named Teddy who is reluctantly pulled in action to go into the nightmares of his owner Alicia, even though she abandoned him to the toy chest, and battle the monsters that are eating her subconscious.  Teddy is joined by a fairy who imbues a pair of scissors with magical energy and he uses them to take on wolves and twisted versions of fairy tale characters, like a bloodthirsty Little Red Riding Hood who sadistically hunts down wolves.  The game is a fairly standard action platformer where you proceed through each stage, dodging obstacles and battling enemies.  There are some pretty great set pieces and environments, like a giant wolf that Red Riding Hood has killed that you climb up or a burning village.  There are lots of spikes and other obstacles that can damage Teddy and it’s a little hard to see some of them at times and the controls feel a bit lose and you can just miss a jump and hit the spikes.  Luckily Teddy can get stitched back up if he has enough energy and you also level up and can gain new abilities and weapons as you progress.  One interesting aspect of the game is the voice acting, especially for Teddy who sounds more like a washed-up 80s action hero or maybe Paul Giamatti, which you probably wouldn’t expect from a teddy bear.  The game was developed by Trinity Team and published by 101XP and it will be released sometime later this year for PC.

Gigapocalypse (Zach): Coming from Headup and developer Goody Gameworks, Gigapocalypse will actually be out this week in Early Access but the demo version was available to check out during PAX Online.  Inspired by games like Rampage, Gigapocalypse puts you in the claws of a giant monster called a Giga, with eventually up to 9 to choose from with unique abilities and powers.  After an initial level where you break out of the facility of a mad scientist, you time travel back to when your Giga was a baby and you have to raise it and grow its powers and skills.  You send your Giga out against various locations and your goal is to survive for as long as possible to gain experience and level up, which will let you purchase upgrades and abilities that will let you progress even farther on the next run.

During the run, your Giga has a melee attack you can use to destroy buildings and some sort of ranged weapon, like a laser, that you can use to attack buildings but probably want to use more on vehicles and enemy troops.  Using either attack uses up your rage meter, so you can’t just click like a madman but you gain rage as you destroy things so even if you deplete it, you should fairly quickly build it back up.  Your Giga takes damage from enemy fire once they lose all their life, they regress to their infant form and return back to the safety of the past.  It’s a simple but fairly addicting game and it has that “one more run” quality about it, especially if you unlock an ability that seems like it will help you get just a little farther if you do one more run.  It also has a very fun cartoony look and feels with great pixel art and you can definitely feel the Rampage influence but with a sort of endless runner/roguelike style gameplay.  As mentioned before, the game will be available on Steam in Early Access on July 22nd, which means it won’t be the final version but you can get in early and things will continue to get added as the development progresses.

Brewmaster (Chris): It’s surprising that a video game solely on craft beer brewing has been around, but developer Auroch Digital and publisher Sold Out are fermenting a fresh take on the cooking simulation title. Brewmaster is a beer-making simulator that aims to be a realistic brewing experience. From following recipes, using proper equipment, and bottling techniques, Brewmaster will show off the fun and complex world of beer. The title is in the early development stage, with a release date set for 2022. But the core idea and visuals are very solid that should entice gamers that enjoy a good craft brew to give this title a taste.

Closing thoughts

While Pax Online 2021 did not have the same level of interactivity compare to last year’s event, the energy and community were very much lively. It’s always a fun time to see new games, hear about interesting nerdy topics and take part in a shared experience, even if it’s in the comfort of our own homes.

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