It’s hard to imagine a year in gaming where something like PAX Australia was needed more. For months, practically the whole year, we’ve watched as countless talented developers and industry professionals have lost their jobs, the ever-narrowing crunch of the modern market’s demands resulting in a disregard for art and those who are passionate, and brave enough, to make it. So for three days last month, we all got to descend on Melbourne, swarming its cafe-laden streets and event venues for a blowout of vibrant, diverse, and deeply creative games.
So gather round as the WellPlayed crew takes a minute to unpack the games, and people, that made Pax Australia so thrilling to attend. From the sharply drawn and even sharper-edged action titles, to queer-led takes on classic literature, to a good old-fashioned round of footy, these are the best games we played at Pax Aus 2023.
PAX Aus is always a haven of talented and creative indies and 2023 was no different. My two main highlights from the show were The Drifter from Powerhoof and Footy Bash from Danger Thumbs. You can read my in-depth articles on The Drifter and Footy Bash on the site, but given how much they ruled, I’d be remiss to not give them a shoutout here.
The Drifter is a point-and-click adventure from Melbourne developer Powerhoof that is dripping in atmosphere and inspired by big names such as Stephen King. It promises a fast-paced narrative full of mystery and intrigue and is backed up by some superb Australian accented voice acting. There’s no current release date but if you’re someone who enjoys point-and-click adventures I implore you to check out the game’s demo when (if) it returns to Steam.
Footy Bash was the other big surprise of the show. It’s an arcade spin on the sport of Aussie Rules in the vein of games like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz and it’s a whole bunch of fun. Even WellPlayed writers who have given me shit for my passionate love of AFL were getting into it – there’s no better endorsement than that. It’s scheduled to launch early next year, and I am more than ready for a good AFL game.
New Zealand certainly brought its A-game this year because that section of floor was constantly packed, and with good reason too, as some of PAX’s best games could be found there.
Denari caught my attention with its colourful cartoon aesthetic and slick gameplay. With an isometric viewpoint, Denari is a 2.5D hack and slash game that sees Taiu, a boy granted telekinetic powers by a deity, set forth to save his empire from an invasion. While no release information is available, it is confirmed for PC, and after getting a taste for the game’s tight and joyful combat, I will certainly be keeping a keen eye on the project.
Another from the land of L&P was Shyfters, which has been on my radar for a while thanks to its striking artwork and neat-looking premise. It’s a 2D action-platformer Metrodvania that sees our main character Brams in search of his missing parents in a world called Ikarus. Here you will discover more than just the truth about your parents, you’ll also have to defeat creatures that stand in your way. After going hands-on, the game’s inspirations are clear-cut, with Shyfters attempting to capture the charm and challenge of Hollow Knight, a task that is not easily done. But what I played has a lot of promise, and more impressively it’s the debut work of one developer. We’re looking forward to seeing how this one progresses.
Deckbuilders were a common sight amongst the many titles of the PAX Rising space, but there were two in particular that caught my eye. The first was Fox And Shadow by Paper Cactus Games. The demo on show guided me through one half of the concept, leading a small drone across a playfield and using various cards to attack and defend enemy AI. There’s promise here of broader concepts, specifically having a second deck to control the drone’s pilot, but what time I had with it has me intrigued.
Another title that captured my attention was Cyber Paradise, a 2D Roguelite with a rich colour palette and a ridiculously fun concept. Unlike Fox And Shadow’s more traditional card-based system, Cyber Paradise has pixelated enemies dropping a ton of random cards that you can stack, causing all sorts of chaos on screen. At one point I was endlessly jumping from one side of the screen to the other, dropping bombs along the way. It does have to be seen to be believed, but I had a blast and can’t wait to see how this one develops.
If card games aren’t your thing but getting utterly frustrated is, may I also introduce you to Ascending Inferno. This platformer pits you against the many layers of hell where the goal is to lead your spirit brother to the surface. The catch? Said brother acts more like a football, and you’ll have to kick him along with you to reach your goal. It’s a wild idea, but coupled with some wonderful visuals, this could be one to keep a closer eye on.
An Italian folklore inspired Soulslike, a mythological action adventure starring a mum with a gun, and gay Dracula. I know that PAX Australia’s offerings often feel more suited to my tastes but fuck me, what a honey trap for James specifically. As always it is categorically impossible to shout out every cool thing you see at the annual Melbourne event, the show floor flooded with diverse and fascinating titles from a cavalcade of developers fresh faced and seasoned. Big props to Conscript, of course, a small marvel of a survival horror I got extensive hands-on time with. But New Zealand certainly showed up this year too, 2022’s humble offering of games from across the reach ballooning in impressive ways and it’s hard to think of a better place to start than the showstopping Rose and Locket.
Whistling Wizard, the NZ developer behind the game, has a Hell of a pitch on its hands. In a hyper-stylised Wild West setting, a mother is on a desperate and violent quest to rescue her daughter. Rose has a gun, a cool hat, and a Locket with her daughter’s soul trapped inside, to break her free she’ll “run and gunsling” her way through manifestations of the seven deadly sins, engaging each in frenetic combat and platforming puzzles. Not only is the game immediately striking, with liberal use of bold colours and blacks to craft an aesthetic that feels like a breathing comic panel, Rose and Locket’s gameplay is absurdly satisfying. Through clever level design and camera work, Rose’s sliding dodge, tight jumps and small arsenal of weapons all just click, making this the standout experience from PAX.
But it’s hard for me to go past a Soulslike like mama used to make and Enotria: The Last Song certainly made its claim on the show floor. A substantial booth, closed in by ornate artwork that depicted a far-off fantasy world and a dominating, masked figure with sword in hand, both bathed in blistering sunlight. That last point is Enotria’s first major stake in the somewhat crowded FromSoftware inspired genre, eschewing the grimy and the dark for sun bleached stone and bright fields of flowers. This change has a substantial impact on the vibes, and paired with Enotria’s Italian architecture and cultural touchstones, it gives the title a refreshing sheen. And we haven’t even touched on the combat; while evidently still in its early stages of development, the bones are phenomenal. Build variety is handled through stunning masks that can be switched on the fly to change between a dex and strength loadout for example. It’s snappy, revelatory, and one of the many reasons this game garnered so much interest this year.
Then there’s my boys, my precious gay boys. Drăculești was tucked away in the far corner of the indie showcase area, a lavishly decorated but cozy booth housing this BL visual novel take on the classic vampire story. One part horror and one part dating sim, Drăculești casts you as unassuming twink Renfield, holed up in the haunted halls of Dracula’s home and besieged by romantic options and mysteries to unfurl. Character portraits are charming, both cute and hot somehow, and the setting organically lends itself to a kind of fetid sensuality. But Melbourne’s Fine Feathered Fiends (an immaculate name) isn’t just style, Drăculești’s substance is immediately obvious in its sharp writing and compelling character work. It was such a delightful surprise and remains one to watch out for.
This year was my second round attending PAX Aus as media, and this time I was properly prepared to get in, play a bunch of games, grease a bunch of palms, and then hit the media room to churn out content while the show was still ongoing. While I did take notes on my phone and I did have my laptop on hand, the excitement took over and precisely zero articles were drafted. While not great for my productivity, my abandonment of plans speaks to the level of quality on show this year. I’ve waffled on a bit here, and you don’t care to hear about my sore feet, so let’s talk games.
Approaching the Bears in Space booth, I knew exactly two things about the game: you play as a bear and you’re in space. From the title I expected a platformer or cute puzzle game, but I was quickly proven wrong, as a space-aged pistol was shoved into my paw, and I went about moving through rooms filled with quipping robots like I had just spotted a massive salmon. Equipped with a range of ridiculous sci-fi weapons that fire until you’re out of ammo, and moving at a pace that would make an Olympic sprinter on roller skates blush, I was completely out of my element, but I was having a blast. The combat is kinetic, and tearing through robo-foes felt great, and the humour that accompanied it was equally impressive. Vendors blathered on about terms and conditions, quest givers rambled about their quests and I was even dragged into an impromptu, and very brutal, game of intergalactic basketball.
My brief time with Bears in Space was discombobulating but in a wholly enjoyable way. Save for the sling tackle-heavy matches of Footy Bash that were had between the WellPlayed crew, there was but one multiplayer game for me at PAX this year. I’ve played a lot of Golf with your Friends, and when I say a lot, I mean a lot, so for a minigolf game to grab my attention it needs to be special. The one-man team at It’s Anecdotal has not only produced a new contender to the throne, but it’s highly likely that when Up to Par releases, it’ll outright usurp the current king. Procedurally generated courses, mixed with a Roguelite shott system would be enough to get me on the green, but when you tell me that you can spend banked shots to purchase upgrades every six holes, mate, I’ve got my visor on and I’m in the buggy, ready to swing.
You’ll hear plenty of praise about Rose and Locket from us, but that won’t stop me from having my two cents. The fine folks across the pond at Whistling Wizard have been working on this 2D platformer/shooter for around five years at this point, and that time in the oven certainly shows. Bright, striking visuals, tight controls and excellent voice acting gave Rose and Locket a clearly defined identity that couldn’t be ignored. The comic book aesthetic shined through more than just its visuals as well, with panels dividing the playable area and sound effects accompanied by onomatopoeia. All of this is backed by a female protagonist, on a mission to release her daughter’s soul by hunting the seven deadly sins through various, unique locations. I only spent about 15 minutes with Rose and Locket, and damn it, that’s not long enough. Not only was it my game of the show, but it also became one of my most anticipated upcoming releases.
It warms my cockles to see the WellPlayed crew collectively agree when they have discovered some magic at work among the PAX Aus indie booths. This year sees my game of show tied between a humble Aussie sports title and a super-stylish action platformer from those hard-working Kiwis across the pond. Both of which are also hailed by other attending WellPlayed writers but let’s discuss Footy Bash and Rose and Locket (plus a few other notable stand-outs).
Footy Bash I can keep brief while luring you in, such was my experience with it. Firstly, picture Aussie rules football through the lens of the hilariously slapstick NBA Jam arcade basketball games. Four players split into two teams, whip a guernsey together, then begin the five-minute match. Players can rapidly switch between chaps on the field as they pursue the ball, with power-ups to tactically use and even a meta where you can bunt folks off a mark with a blood-spilling tackle and take off with the ball. When in possession, you can charge their kicks to attempt a faraway goal but be warned, charging the kick leaves you open for a brutal interception. For a game that is only 6 months into production, it was drawing crowds that AFL Live would envy. Footy Bash is a proper biff frenzy, complete with plenty of mo’s and mullets.
New Zealand is doing incredible stuff in a region that sees little-to-no public funding in the dev scene, yet we get to behold the gem that is Rose and Locket. With a confident command of its presentation and a unique cinematic style that chops up the 2D player space to toy with player perspective, our team was immediately enamoured. The premise is simply that of a mother entering a kind of death realm to slay the bosses posing as the seven deadly sins. What plays out is a tour de force of style and aesthetic, with quick cuts and canny close-ups while still balancing sharp and responsive gameplay. Rose is armed like she’s on the set of a Western, with six-shooters and semi-automatic weapons on offer. Top this off with pacey and fluid platforming, Rose and Locket felt as good with the controller in hand as it looked to any passersby. A real PAX Aus 2023 achievement.
Now for the weirdest, but no less endearing, game of the expo, The Dungeon Experience. I must note that I did not go hands-on with this but waited at the front of the queue for well over an hour, seeing a few players devour its hilarious yet lengthy demo in its entirety. But before that, attendees of the experience will first listen to a physical tape deck recording. A vocal mud crab who will be your guide through this experience introduces themselves in the recording, followed by a smooth saxophone performance to get you in the headspace. Huh? As a first-person adventure game with some similarities to The Stanley Parable, your quest is to secure financial freedom in a kind of Millennial nightmare of red tape and bureaucracy. To prepare you for this treacherous dungeon excursion, there is a combat tutorial on show that features cardboard weapons and enemies floating on drones. But forget combat, this is all about the complexities of managing the existential dread that comes with surviving the tyranny of capitalism. Although sometimes it’s tempting to get waylaid by a saxophone performance.
Then you will be asked to tweak and tickle the comically elongated nipples of a barbarian. Don’t ask why. Never ask why.
You’ve stopped with the questions? Good, because you will also do the following: you will hide dead bodies to avoid OH&S breaches, pay off loans, craft a headset, feed a coffee table that is actually a human man. To the non-crabs among us, this must seem like mundane, everyday shit…
DarkwebSTREAMER was certainly a crowd favourite at PAX this year as I never saw the booth empty. Boasting its unique, creepily nostalgic internet imagery, it stood out amongst the crowd and was the first game I played. Players delve into the world of streaming, but how far would you go? If you like weird internet things, this procedurally generated permadeath horror RPG streaming sim is just for you. This game has been to several conventions since its debut on the scene and has grown in both technical aspects as well as developing quite a following online. The South Australian studio – We Have Always Lived In The Forest – is led by Chantal Ryan who is a powerhouse in her role and I am very excited for the future of both this game and studio.
The next game that I had my eye on was Primordial Legends: Hollow Hero from the amazing team at Toybox Game Studios. Their combat wombat, Brunt, stole my heart last year, and this year she has done it again. Travelling through the mystical lands of Eridal in this 3D platformer to uncover its mysteries was a lot of fun. This game also won the People’s Choice Award of the PAX Indie Showcase, a very well-deserved award for both the team and the game.
By the end of the weekend, I was looking for some silly fun, and I definitely found that in Ricochet Rodeo. This 2D platformer looks quaint at first, but once you and seven other players load in as cowboys – it is game on. It’s raining bullets and limbs as you brawl to see who has the fastest pistol in the West. Forget tactics, this game is pure chaos, and every person I saw play this had a fantastic time. The team at Echnidna Studios certainly know how to make it rain fun.
And that’s a wrap on the best things we played at PAX Australia 2023! Did you catch everything we listed here? Did we miss something you’re dying for people to know about? Be sure to let us know in the comments below or giving us a yell on the social media platform of your choice.