SEATTLE—We’ve already had a lot to say about the games we saw at last week’s PAX West. Our coverage kicked off with an exclusive Valve studio visit and demo of its new card game Artifact, and we continued with looks at surprise ’90s rebirths and Nintendo Switch offerings.
But as Ars’ sole PAX West attendee, I needed downtime to genuinely process the remainder of what I saw. And after a week to think on it, I’m ready to identify this year’s stand-out games. A fan-first expo may not necessarily be the best place to judge certain game types, particularly deeper, systems- and story-loaded fare, and PAX was missing megaton titles like Cyberpunk 2077 and Fallout 76 (although Bethesda was giving out Vault Boy masks). But we think our choice of notable PAX demos says plenty about the surprises and fun the show had in store.
(Stay tuned for at least one more PAX West-related article in the near future, by the way: a sit-down chat with Rick Morty co-creator Justin Roiland about his first full-fledged VR adventure game, Trover Saves The Universe.)
Disco Elysium: A dialogue delight
Giving any game or demo a PAX West “best of show” designation is pretty misleading, especially when many of this expo’s best games have debuted at previous events. (Quite a few good PAX West games, including Mega Man 11 and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, already made our E3 2018 list, for example; retreading that ground would be redundant.) But if you push me to pick a personal PAX West favorite, in terms of newness and surprise, that honor indisputably goes to Disco Elysium.
Do not mistake this dialogue-driven RPG for an interactive novel. This top-down point-and-click adventure, made by a small studio out of London, includes puzzles and inventory-driven mechanics that you might expect in a LucasArts classic. The difference here is the sheer breadth of branching dialogue paths and optional conversations packed into this early-2019 PC adventure game—not to mention the hilariously dark and brutal script driving its horror-loving humor forward.
Disco Elysium‘s writers clearly drink from the pools of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. This is immediately proven by a pitch-black introduction in which you engage in a dialogue back-and-forth with an apparent overseer of all realms—one who gets you drunk on the promise of infinite nothingness, only to yank you into consciousness by way of waking from a raging hangover. Turns out, this conversation was all invented in your mind as a drunken sleepwalking battle with a radio in your hotel room. You come to as a naked, amnesiac cop in an alternate-history future, but there’s little time to get your bearings, as you must immediately contend with a dead body hanging outside the hotel you’ve woken in.
Even in that opening dialogue with something—the devil? the end of the world? your own delusions?—players must grapple with Disco Elysium‘s dice-rolling dialogue system. Many major dialogue choices hinge on whether your character’s existing stats, paired with a random dice roll, will exceed whatever DD-style number is established in a given moment. And your character can aim for mastery in 24 properties—split equally into “intellect,” “psyche,” “physique,” and “motorics”—to prepare for a wide variety of showdown options.
Every major gameplay face-off, from full-blown melee to staring matches against yourself in a mirror, hinges on dialogue-tree options. The kicker is that, in many cases, failing is so delightful, so darkly humorous, that you just have to go for it—and the story often keeps going, as opposed to halting and punishing you for failed rolls. An example: in one run-through, I decided to attempt a “stealth” getaway while chatting with a hotel clerk, in spite of my stealth stat being the pits. The result of my failed roll was that I bounded away while loudly cackling and giving the clerk two highly raised middle fingers—and the action on screen unfolded in kind, with my cel-shaded polygonal character bounding over high-res, hand-drawn artwork of the hotel lobby in question. And the game just… kept going.
That’s not to say there’s no incentive for playing to your character’s strengths, especially as you focus on specific stats, and you’ll need to do so to unlock what the developers estimate is over 70 hours of dialogue-driven gameplay. (You’ll need roughly three playthroughs to find the diverging paths that add up to that total, they point out.) No release date is yet set for this ambitious beast of a game, but I’m already prepared to buy on day one.
Indie sequels: Spelunky 2, Risk of Rain 2
There was no shortage of sequels at PAX West, but we’d already gone hands-on with many of the biggies at events like E3. Hilariously, one of the biggest sequels we’d tested before, Kingdom Hearts III, nearly overshadowed a sequel that received its world gameplay premiere at PAX: Spelunky 2.
The series, created by designer Derek Yu, has used PAX West in the past for at least one big reveal, with Spelunky HD getting its hands-on world premiere at the show in 2011 (back when it was still called “PAX Prime,” if you’re keeping score). The series’ first major gameplay update in years, a full-blown sequel, will launch “in 2019” on Windows and PlayStation 4, and we had to rely on a single kiosk in the middle of Sony’s PAX booth (and next to a line-drawing Kingdom Hearts kiosk, at that) to see how it will differ from its forebear.
Any Spelunky fan knows better than to look at the sequel’s preview footage and laugh it off as “nearly identical” to the original game. We’re back to an admittedly familiar art style, which is made up of square-sized sprites that fit into the series’ famed roguelite system of randomly generated dungeons. The core controls are identical, as well: players descend into dungeons with a default whip attack, a limited number of bombs and climbing ropes, and an edge-grabbing jump move.
Where Spelunky 2 differs is in the crazy amount of stuff that its worlds are populated with. We could only enjoy a brief taste of this depth thanks to how brutally tough the current demo is—which is in line with the series’ famed die-and-retry ethos. New enemies that we saw include a burrowing mole-rat, a spiky, rolling armadillo, an exploding toy robot, and a catapulting, boss-sized jungle man. Meanwhile, existing enemies will sometimes ride into the action on a mount… which you can swipe for your own use. Both mounts we saw—a turkey and a rock-covered dog—offer variations on the standard double-jump action, and they can also absorb damage or offer a boost-jump (should you wish to brutally discard them, Yoshi-style).
These all appeared in my demos quite randomly, as did a new series of candlelit caverns that hide treasures, a new water-physics system that determines how puddles of water (and lava) can cascade through a level (especially when triggered by your own bombs), and a new Indiana Jones-style trap mechanism near the game’s valuable “idol” pick-ups. The latter seems designed specifically for co-op play, requiring someone to run in the path of a trap, then grab and immediately throw the idol before it’s squished by a massive, level-smashing barricade. And Spelunky 2 has co-op on its mind, with new online support and heartier, co-op specific options, including two-person puzzle triggers and the ability for online co-op players to have their own screens.
I had a blast playing (and, ugh, dying) through my own Spelunky 2 attempts. But if you made me pick PAX West’s “best” sequel, it’d be a tie between the above game and the radical evolution of Risk of Rain 2.
A few core concepts have been carried over in this sequel—namely, that the more time you take to get to a level’s boss, the tougher that final battle and its accompanying grunts will become. The struggle, then, is to decide: do you focus on rushing straight to the level’s hidden boss? Or take your time accumulating wealth and spending it at various pay-for-upgrade kiosks, while dealing with an increasingly awful onslaught?
In the sequel, this concept has been slapped into a very different mechanical game, changing from the original side-scrolling action-platformer to a 3D, third-person adventure. This transformation has clearly put a jolt into the designers, who’ve created new hero classes that emphasize decidedly different combat strategies. Want to unleash firepower in a standard soldier style? Wield a combination of floating drone turrets and chargeable, arced grenades? Are you more interested in a fast teleport-dash maneuver while firing weaker, heat-seeking arrow missiles? Even in the game’s early state, RoR2 already enjoys a solid spread of class types, and their specific powers feel all the more crucial as combat can now fill your entire dome of vision, as opposed to focused platforms in a 2D level. (And the original game’s enemies have returned with upgrades in kind, particularly their newfound abilities to hop, fly, and generally pester you.)
RoR2 already appears to reward replay with mostly intangible boosts. Every session spawns players at a random point of a pre-made map, where treasures, enemies, and bosses are randomly hidden, so repeat play will help players better understand where interesting and dangerous content may hide—and that kind of understanding will be necessary, especially with so much sprawling verticality in the three impressive levels we’ve seen thus far.
Like in the original game, some content, particularly new character classes, will unlock as players reach certain milestones. Nut for the most part, each session starts players fresh. You’ll have to depend on your understanding of a character’s class, of the levels, and of the enemies you’ve seen in prior battles to get anywhere, as opposed to unlocking cumulative health or damage bonuses over repeat sessions.
We still want to see how various classes do or don’t gel, especially once the final game opens up to four-player online co-op (or two-player split-screen) and to more character classes (including, hopefully, some melee-focused options). But RoR2 already feels like a solid option for quick-hit, PvE co-op action with friends, and we can’t wait to see more (including a confirmed release date).
Listing image by Sam Machkovech