If a gaming convention is a foot race, PAX Prime is one of those marathons that a guy who spends all his time at REI is really into, where you have to run through mud and barbed wire and someone gets typhoid and dies. There is so much to see, so many people to meet, so many hands to shake, so many business cards to trade, so much bacteria to exchange, so many after-parties to decide between, so many bars to hop between after the after-parties, and so many sidewalks in Seattle I definitely didn’t throw up on. Everyone I know usually gets sick, loses their voice, or just has to take a week to recover from the vampiric after-effects of that much social interaction.

Having said that, PAX is the reason I do this at all. It’s a pilgrimage wherein my faith in the community and the industry is restored. I meet an endless stream of incredible people making incredible things and I am reminded why video games are such a huge part of my life. I come home overwhelmed but in the best possible way. This PAX Prime was no exception. Packed floor-to-multiple-ceilings with amazing things to see and do, I had a hard time deciding what to even focus on for a post-mortem of such a big event.

A lot of the developers I spoke to over the weekend were in the last phases of their game’s development, and PAX to them was a sort of last chance to make an impression before their game releases, so I’ve decided to try and focus on that momentum – on games that are due out before the end of the year that deserve your time and attention.

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Armello – September 1st, 2015

I think we can start this list with a game that’s freshly released to a great deal of deserved praise. Armello is a refreshing take on the dice/board/RPG mashup genre, intuitive enough to pick up and play almost immediately, but wrinkled enough in its intricacies to encourage repeated play. It’s rare for me to enjoy playing a card/board game on the incredibly noisy, hot, crowded show floor at PAX but Armello is so charming and well-presented it was impossible to pass it over. I had played this in early access and I still waited in line to experience more of the multiplayer with other conventioneers.

Reviews so far have been very positive, and I would agree with the popular sentiment; Armello is charming and clever, and worth its price tag. My only complaints in its current Steam incarnation is a lack of couch co-op, as its multiplayer is a terrific spin on a Settlers of Catan-style family/friend board game, and that sometimes it can feel heavily luck-dependant. Otherwise it’s a joy to see, hear, and play.

 

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Sword Coast Legends – September 29th, 2015

I was lucky enough to bluster my way into a press-only showing of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise’s newest digital foray, and it became a highlight of the entire show for me as soon as I saw just what the team at N-Space was really accomplishing.

I rolled a Charisma skill check and told my whole tale of D&D nostalgia: that I’d grown up a second-generation nerd in a house where Lord of the Rings was our bible and tabletop games were family game night. The dev team laughed and immediately grabbed me a chair, encouraging me to watch their senior designer as he tried to thwart the other four devs in their quest to slay a cave of spiders. I already had a vague understanding that the game was split into a sort of asynchronous two halves – a DM player who constructed the dungeon by hand or from pre-gen environments, managed dice rolls, plunked down monsters and traps, and generally harried the player characters. The four players bumbled around the cave, while we snickered behind our virtual DM Screen making customized mindflayers and plotting how to thwart our friends.

Sword Coast is an entirely new kind of D&D experience that gave me the kind of ephemeral joy I had thought impossible outside of the original pen-and-paper game. D&D games have flirted with a serious Dungeon Master component before – 2002’s classic Neverwinter Nights sported one of the most robust versions of a campaign creator in any RPG, and had an impressive online architecture that allowed people to share mods and campaigns for years – but I have never really seen it pulled off in such an intuitive, instantly-gratifying way. Sword Coast may look like a simplified version of the CRPGs of our past, but it eschews the pause-and-play stutter-pace of a Baldur’s Gate for a more whirlwind Diablo one.

Just like in the real pen-and-paper, there’s plenty of before-game preparation to be done but the magic happens between the lines, where both the party and the DM have to improvise and the real campaign takes shape. It encourages that quality the very best DMs I’ve played with have: making it up as they go along but making it seem like it was the plan, always keeping the players just challenged enough but never frustrated. Sword Coast emphasizes that give-and-take, constantly re-calibrating experience where a DM isn’t just telling his or her story; they and the player characters are all making one together.

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Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes – October 8th 2015

I’m old, and I’ve been playing games for almost 30 years. As such, I’ve developed a bit of a scabrous, cynical outermost crusty layer. I’m perfectly content with games that lack the luxurious trappings of modernity, like checkpoints or auto-maps or anything else that strikes me as newfangled. I always view new peripherals with disinterest at best, and active malignment at worst. VR as it stands is something I am lukewarm on, and until I can actually run my hands along the sensual pages of an in-game book in Elder Scrolls IX or maybe smooch Vaughn from Tales From the Borderlands a little I’m just not that invested in it.

Keep Talking is the kind of game that actually appeals to me despite its technical requirements. It’s focused on one very specific niche premise, it’s got a great party-game element, and it actually is elevated by peripheral use rather than obfuscated by it. It’s set up as a double-blind, with one person playing a bomb defuser and the others all playing “experts” who must talk them clearly and calmly through the process of defusing it. Frankly just watching it is a riot, and playing it is tense and hilarious.

I hope if I end up in possession of an Oculus that this can be as great of a party game as I think it could be; one of my favorite things to do with a bunch of friends is get four-or-five drinks deep and bust out Rock Band so we can all be totally terrible at something together, and Keep Talking has the added component of testing your friends’ communication skills and relationships.

 

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Cibele – October/November 2015

I was lucky to catch Fullbright’s Nina Freeman between interviews and to play her pet project Cibele in a much quieter venue than the main PAX halls, and I was more affected by it than I had thought I’d be. I’m generally not as much of a fan of narrative games, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a game centered around an autobiographical account of an online relationship transitioning into an offline one. But Cibele had a tone – sharply personal, intimate, and almost uncomfortable – that I had to listen to.

When I met Nina she was dressed like a shojo character, complete with a Sailor Moon tattoo, and she had a devotion to an aesthetic that I understood even if I didn’t ascribe to it. Cibele is so femininely-coded, awash in seafoam green and powderpuff pink, that it is very much a statement in and of itself. Nina and I talked a lot about where we come from in our relation to our own gender, about how easy it is to reject femininity as something weak and undesirable, and about how differently both of us have gone about our lives as women in video gaming culture.

Cibele isn’t about femininity, but it’s certainly about being a teenage girl in a very specific time and place. It isn’t interested in making and broad statements about “women in video games” or “online relationships” or anything else I think a lot of headlines about this game have tended to proclaim. It tries to simply show you how Nina’s relationship with a boy she met playing an MMO developed and changed, and Freeman hopes that in its confessional tone it can reach its audience emotionally. I’m curious about how the finished product will be, and in how it will be received, but either way the half-hour I spent playing and discussing it was an entirely unique experience.

 

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Darkest Dungeon – October/November 2015

As I said to many people at PAX, Darkest Dungeon is my game of the year for 2015 no matter what else comes out. In the 60+ hours I’ve logged of it on Steam, I’m laughed, I’ve cried, and I’ve bitten my nails until they bled. I even wrote an article about how it broke my heart and only made me respect it more. Since I wrote that piece Dungeon has rounded an interesting corner in its development. In mid-July the team released a patch that turned the game on its ear and produced such a kneejerk reaction from its community that it ended up in press coverage all over again for entirely new reasons: as a “cautionary tale” about over-tinkering in Early Access.

I had the chance to talk to the team at PAX, mostly to enthuse about just how much I have loved this game, but inevitably our conversations diverted to their new hurdle in dealing with this patch’s unforeseen ramifications. I have my own opinions both on the patch, and the community’s fiery response to it, but it’s a lot longer than this blurb allows. Since the headlines in July and August, the team’s gone an unexpected mile to try and address concerns in a way that they hoped would please newcomers and veterans, and the general atmosphere around their booth from players was positive and appreciative.

Ideally this game gets the launch it deserves: a Halloween victory lap, not a burning at an imaginary stake.

 

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Banner Saga 2 – Winter 2015

The first Banner Saga was beautiful and uncompromising, like an icy breath of bracingly cold but fresh air in a sometimes stagnant genre. SRPGs are my all-time favorite kind of game and Saga’s pitiless gameplay and incredible presentation captured my attention at the first trailer I saw of it. I was so pleased it did well enough commercially to warrant a sequel, and even more pleased with how it’s shaping up every time I see it.

My only complaint about the original Saga was that as a life-long fan of the genre, I was disappointed in the depth of its gameplay. There wasn’t much in it I hadn’t seen before, and it was at times shallower than I had expected. As soon as I started the tutorial in this sequel I already knew this had changed; new variables, new types of enemies, and a slew of new strategic challenges were immediately apparent. There is more developed narrative interaction as well, making me agonize over storyline choices and my actions as a leader.

Banner Saga 2 is only expanding upon an already impressive achievement, building an ever-broader and more arresting world full of sorrow and tension. Both games promise to be part of my own “seasonal” gaming catalogue; when the weather turns cold I’m always excited to pile up some blankets and climb the Thousand Steps in Skyrim, shatter frost elementals in Icewind Dale, and now to command the wild northmen of Banner Saga.