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The Best Games We Played At PAX Aus 2022

The PAX picks are in

Coming off a two-year physical hiatus, PAX Aus came back in force in 2022. Over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, thousands of gaming, cosplay, tabletop and pop culture fans descended on the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, eager to play some games, roll some dice and have a good old time with like-minded folks. Joining in on the fun was the teal-toting WellPlayed crew, consisting of Zach, Kieran, Nathan, Adam, Mark and James, who spent the three days wandering the show floor, playing new and upcoming games and chatting with passionate developers about their exciting projects.

The big three (Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo) were more or less absent this year, leaving more room for the massive pool of indie talent in the PAX Rising section to take centre stage. We’ve all got sore feet and hoarse voices, but we’ve also come away from PAX Aus 2022 with a hefty list of excellent games to talk about, so the exhaustion was well worth it. If you’re worried about the lack of tabletop games here, don’t stress, as we’ll be covering those separately, so keep your eyes peeled.

Here are our highlights from PAX Aus 2022:

Zach

For me, this PAX was very much ‘you don’t know if you don’t try it’, as conceptually there wasn’t a lot that was in my wheelhouse. But just like when Mum would secretly feed me veggies I claimed that I didn’t like under the guise of something else, I found myself enjoying the taste of genres I normally wouldn’t play.

Of course, the old faithful adventure game is always going to catch my eye, and I finally went hands-on with Repella Fella, a game I’ve had on my radar for a while and one which I can only describe as an Australian-flavoured South Park. Not only does the art style share similarities but so does the comedic tone, and its choose-your-own-adventure-style dialogue options are sure to make for some intriguing and hilarious playthroughs. Best of all, it is undoubtedly Australian, with the writing and voice acting excellently capturing the beautiful elegance in which we butcher the English language. Launching later this year on PC.

Another title that stood out was Box Knight, a roguelike from Adelaide-based team We Made A Thing Studio, a duo of animators that decided to venture out and make a video game. In Box Knight, you’re an office worker by day, but when it comes to 5pm Friday you’re the protector of the office good times, fighting your way through hordes of enemies and delivering cold beers and other beverages to co-workers with the thirst. If your character is lacking in the health department, knock back a froth of your own to restore it. Seriously impressive cartoon visuals and animations, and a fun gameplay loop has certainly put this on my list. Stay hydrated for a PC release in 2023.

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Perhaps the game that impressed me the most was Blackheart from New Zealand dev team Hyporeal. Inspired by Hades and Hyper Light Drifter – two games that I’ve never played but heard good things – Blackheart is a 2D single-player dark fantasy action RPG with heaps of style. The demo we played was more a proof of concept that gave players an idea of what the team is aiming for. Nonetheless, it was impressive, with gorgeous artwork, slick animations and an intuitive gameplay loop highlighting the game’s potential. It’s still early doors for Blackheart’s development, with Hyporeal not expecting to launch the game before 2024, but it’s definitely a title I’ll be keeping a keen eye on.

Kieran

Although I am affectionately referred to as KierAAAn in the WellPlayed office, there is plenty room in my big-budget action blockbuster heart for humbler indie titles. Indies take creative liberties and risks that larger titles wouldn’t dare for fear of failure, and the results are often incredible and a testament to truly talented artists with vision and skill bringing their passion to life. PAX Rising is an amazing showcase of locally-grown development talent, as well as talent from our good friends across the ditch in New Zealand, and hours flew by as I wandered from station to station playing anything and everything I could get my sanitised hands on.

Among what I played, a couple of titles stuck out, principal among them being Conscript. Largely the work of one man (Jordan Mochi) and his outfit Catchweight Studio, this grim isometric survival horror game set in the trenches of World War I was bleak and unforgettable. We’ve actually covered the developer in our Made In Australia segment, and I urge you to check out his story as he’s quite a fascinating guy. As well as being a modern history buff, he also draws heavy inspiration from the Resident Evil series, which is overwhelmingly evident in things like inventory management and even the menu and dialogue font. It’s a case of inspiration rather than imitation though, and the unique style pairs perfectly with the elements borrowed from the house that Resident Evil built. Pixel art is the soupe du jour in the current indie era, but Conscript squeezes amazing amounts of detail out of the well-worn art style, with animations in particular seeming almost surreal. I’m looking forward to seeing how the full experience plays out and beating more soldiers with a trench shovel when Jordan’s ready to unleash this bad boy on the world.

Another title that stuck with me was darkwebSTREAMER, which stirred long-dormant memories of text-based adventures, in particular the (potentially) unintentionally creepy Alice in Wonderland game I played as a youngster. From developer We Have Always Lived In The Forest, darkwebSTREAMER is an odd beast that tasks you with becoming the top streamer on the dark web, predominantly by mucking around with haunted objects for the entertainment of your subs. It’s got a lo-fi black and white interface and a creepy, unsettling vibe that really captures the cyber horror tone. The stakes couldn’t be higher either, as if you fail in your mission to become the best there ever was (streamer-wise), you die. Nice.

Mark

You might notice a trend in this highlights article, and that’s the PAX Rising area. Full to the brim with content both Australian-made and also from international talent, it’s the area I was most keen for, if only because there are so many unique voices and ideas within the space. Sure, Sonic Frontiers may have been there (more on that later), Alone in the Dark too, but my oh my, were the indies the star of the show and then some.

I’ll explore most of these in more detail later, but there are a few in particular that caught my eye, starting with Dark Light, a sort of Dead Cells meets dark and gritty survival narrative. From what I played, it felt great to deftly dodge incoming attacks, swing around with a shotgun and down an unsuspecting zombie straight in the back, plus the special abilities you pick up along the way seem deadly brutal. It just launched in full on Steam in late September, so go give it a run.

Speaking of the dead, Dead Pets Unleashed impressed me with its mix of varying, colourful genres, rock music and crude humour. It’s like if We Are OFK was an edgy, dystopian story about four rock artists in hell. In fact, that’s exactly what it is, though you’ll have to balance keeping the dream of rocking out alive with day-to-day jobs like waiting tables and keeping the rent paid. There’s a demo available on Steam now, so give it a run if any of that catches your fancy.

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Another game that was recently released in attendance at the show was Rite, and seriously, if you have any and all interest in Super Meat Boy, N++ or 2018 GOTY Celeste, you’d be wise to go hunt this down at its super cheap price on Steam and Switch. It’s an absolute steal. A clever 2D platformer that takes those aforementioned titles and puts the simple spin of ‘sure, beat the level, but can you collect all the coins too?’ on it, mixed with traps galore.

Finally, and this took my award for game of the show, there’s Tempopo. Imagine Captain Toad, but with a cute, fuzzy spin, that’s Tempopo, and I had a blast trying it out for the first time on the show floor. It’s from the team that delivered the crazy good Assault Android Cactus and Unpacking, so you already know its pedigree is high. It’s just a shame there’s no release date yet because I’m mad keen to play more, so go read my preview in the meantime.

James

Given the past couple of years we’ve collectively had, it’s a little difficult to know where to begin when summarising PAX Aus 2022. A cathartic and emotionally critical moment of collective relief to share meat space with friends, to hug and to laugh and have a few too many. Paired with a series of mildly panicked beats as strained ears hear a cough nearby and you reflexively tighten your breath, the enormity of the crowd around you rushing back in. This collision of concepts and feelings is maybe best manifested in the sprawling PAX Rising area. Equal measures enthusiasm and trepidation, here developers from all over gathered to show us their hard work, a wide spectrum of games that allowed us a glimpse into the best the independent industry has to offer. 

The eternally effervescent Kieran has already posted up on my game of the show elsewhere (hi, darkwebSTREAMER, let’s get coffee), so I’ll kick things off with one of the bigger surprises. On the third day of the show I got a message from a mate who was also attending that simply said, “You did a shit job of selling this to me, Dredge rules”. Despite the violence this blow dealt to my writing abilities, I can kind of see her point. In basic words it’s hard to pitch exactly why Dredge rules as hard as it does. Ostensibly a boating and fishing simulator set in a modest open-ocean-world, Dredge casts you as a down on his luck fisherman who must sell his fresh catches to townsfolk to pay for a new and improved boat. The catch (ha) is that this world is afflicted by monstrous creatures that venture out after dark, when the best fish surface too, of course. 

Thus the risk/reward of Dredge makes itself apparent, shifting this simple premise into a surprisingly tense and atmospheric ride. The game boasts an incredible art direction, with echoes of Dishonored and Lovecraftian overtones, as well as the always engaging Resident Evil 4 inventory management mini-game. Perhaps most unique about Dredge though is the ability to fully complete the game without once seeing the horror elements. Developer Black Salt Games told me on the showfloor that they wanted this game to be played exactly how the player wants, a welcome shift to the genre. While we’re riffing on horror experiences, I also need to wildly wave my hands toward Vlad Circus: Descend into Madness from Indiesruption. This point-and-click spooky mystery follows a disturbingly painted-up clown as he stomps the halls of a mansion where his cohort of circus buds have gathered on the anniversary of a devastating fire that ruined their lives. Much like Dredge, it’s hard to fully explain just how well Vlad Circus creates its atmosphere, but its pixel-art perfection and sombre tone made for a unique and intriguing time. 

I’m getting a little long in the tooth and I know the other lads have so much more to share so let me close out with some rapid fire highlights. Abiotic Factor from New Zealand’s Deep Field Games plays like a low-rent successor to the Half Life series in the best way possible. Planet Pumpkin has harnessed the awfully amusing power of momentum with its Noodle Samurai action platformer, while also having lowkey one of the best art styles at the show. Stampy Paws Studios is launching a literal GameBoy game, on cartridge, called Kendan and the Gem of Erv because of course and why not? Oh and did I mention darkwebSTREAMER?

Adam

Most of my time at PAX was split between the tabletop gaming area (which I’ll cover in a separate article) and PAX Rising, which was conveniently on the opposite side of the convention centre. When I wasn’t rolling dice, I was drawn to the CODE (Centre of Digital Excellence) booth, where a collection of impressive New Zealand projects were on display. 

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For me, the most striking game to come from our friends across the pond was a calming adventure title that’s being developed by the Ōtepoti-based team, Atawhai Interactive. Toroa is a gorgeous and relaxing title filled with warm tones, dreamlike visuals and melodic music that has you playing as an albatross soaring through the skies above the Pacific Ocean. Guided by the God of winds, Tāwhirimātea, Toroa is steeped in Maori culture and folklore and has an environmental message that was present even within the short ten-minute demo that I played. Despite the hustle and bustle around me at the time, I felt transported away to somewhere more tranquil when playing Toroa, which is about as high a praise that can be given when at a convention as busy as PAX.

Just around the corner from the serene moments found within Toroa was the beer-bashing brawler, Under the Tavern, developed by Mune Studio. Once I recovered from the tonal whiplash after the zen experience of being a majestic albatross, I settled into the short demo for this four-player dungeon crawler set beneath a busy fantasy watering hole. From the two characters available in this build, I opted for the tanky fellow with a flamethrower and explosive kegs, a decision I stand by fervently. While the general combat felt solid, with weapons feeling weighty and abilities popping with a decent amount of visual flare, the game’s charm sunk its hooks in. The chests crack open like a can, there’s booze flowing freely like rivers, and, most importantly, the boss of the level is a giant, beer-bellied suit of armour that challenges you to a giant game of beer pong. My face was painted with a big, stupid grin throughout the demo, and I left the booth wanting more. 

Rounding out my tour of New Zealand was Dredge, a game that, if I hadn’t watched and played, wouldn’t have held my attention through pitch alone. The Steam description of a “single-player fishing adventure” doesn’t disturb my waters, but the demo showed off a beautiful art style and a Lovecraftian twist that stirred my excitement into a tidal wave. The other lads have likely touched on this absolute gem already, so I won’t gush too much, just know that I’m among the number of people eagerly awaiting this ship to dock early next year.

Charting a course back to Australia, I lastly want to shine a light on an intriguing little puzzle game from the Queensland-based team Abandoned Sheep. Schrodinger’s Cat Burglar caught my attention with a cute mascot and kept it with some interesting mechanics. Though Initially underestimating this cute title as another run-of-the-mill puzzler, I was quickly silenced when the Schrodinger name came into play. At the press of a button, Mittens (the player cat) can split into a pair, one literal and the other theoretical. This allows for more engaging and challenging puzzles, with the theoretical Mittens being able to move through solid objects, leaving the literal Mittens to do all of the paws-on work. This was the game’s first public showing, and with a winning mechanic like this, I’d see Schrodinger’s Cat Burglar picking up a lot of momentum going forward.

Did you attend PAX Aus this year? If you did, or you’ve been getting around all of the demos from Steam Next Fest, we want to hear about your highlights, so let us know in the comments or on our social media.

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