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The Most Anticipated Indie Games of 2020

A new year means a whole new slate of indies to get excited about over the coming months. Here’s what you should keep an eye on in 2020.

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Another year, another staggering lineup of promising indies to look forward to. Independent games have been thriving more than ever in recent years thanks to companies like Nintendo and Microsoft having dedicated indie-focused presentations, greater ease of access in general, and the rise of the Switch as the hottest little indie machine around.

Between Indie World, ID@Xbox, the various PAX events, the Game Festival demos following 2019’s The Game Awards, and the hundreds of titles that release on Steam every week, it can feel nearly impossible to keep up with the most interesting indies of the bunch. Luckily, we’ve got you covered. Here are our picks for the most anticipated indie games currently slated for 2020.

Cris Tales

For as prevalent a role as time travel has had in RPGs over the years, Cris Tales completely reinvents the concept by presenting the past, present, and future all on the same screen. It’s bizarre in theory and shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, but the hour-long Steam demo released last year proved otherwise.

The story follows a young orphan named Crisbell who stumbles into becoming a time mage and must save the world from a gruesome future. Along with an eclectic crew of companions, players will have to learn from the past to make key decisions in the present that will influence the future. Time travel will also play into the game’s stylish turn-based combat system, allowing players to do things like put an enemy to sleep, wait until they wake up, then turn back time to when they were still asleep.

As well as this concept is integrated, however, Cris Tales’ substantial production values are just as impressive. There’s full voice acting for every word of dialogue, clean UI design, and an absolutely jaw-dropping visual style that seamlessly transitions between time periods and different environments. Here’s hoping the story is just as polished as everything else.


Garden Story

If Spiritfarer puts joy at the at the center of its appeal, Garden Story goes all-in on coziness. Autumn Town has been ravaged by a sinister force known only as “the Rot,” and it’s up to a little grape named Concord to help the surrounding community as much as possible. The catch here is that instead of mainly fending off monsters (though there’s a bit of that, too) Garden Story is mainly themed around rehabilitation.

Much like portions of Stardew Valley, the name of the game is to scavenge materials and help townspeople with different types of requests (be they combat, exploration, or gathering-focused). The more kinds of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into the game’s world and history.

Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, developer Picogram already delivers on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.


HuniePop 2

The original HuniePop transformed the dating sim by incorporating light RPG elements and addicting match-three gameplay into the core dating loop. Players ended up coming for the “plot” as much as they did for the puzzles and cast (a cast that was popular enough to eventually spawn a slightly less risqué spin-off).

As a direct sequel taking place two years after the original, HuniePop 2 will move away from the college town of yesteryear to an all-new tropical resort setting. There’ll be at least 13 girls to romance between old favorites and new additions, and each will be fully voiced yet again. If the writing retains the same bite and charm as the original, this has the potential to unironically be one of the best puzzle games of the year.


Ikenfell

ForHarry Potter and Little Witch Academia fans, the pitch for a magic school RPG practically sells itself. Although it’s doubtful that the ever-elusive Witchbrook will release this year, Chevy Ray’s Ikenfell might be just what fans are looking for in the meantime.

Originally Kickstarted in 2016, Ikenfell is a turn-based RPG that takes place at a magic school where students study hard to master different spells and enchantments. One day, a top student suddenly goes missing, and it’s up to you and your fellow classmates to search for clues, fight magical creatures, and ultimately get to the bottom of the disappearance.

Eschewing a deep narrative for a more gameplay-focused experience, Ikenfell’s main selling point is its use of a wide range of spells for an inventive take on grid-based combat. Couple that with creative enemy designs, charming environmental puzzles, and the steady progression of learning new magic, and this is surely one to keep your eye on.


Röki

Röki thrives on its ominous fairytale-like atmosphere and mysterious snowy backdrop. This is a moody exploration game through and through, complete with all manner of puzzle-solving, riddle-answering, and even a bit of crafting here and there.

For all its beauty and atmospheric mastery, however, the Scandinavian folklore-inspired adventure didn’t fully click until I was able to go hands-on with it late last year. Walking through the ominous snow-covered forest and cracking the code to a few genuinely head-scratching puzzles made me a believer. Be prepared to bang your head against the wall a couple times when Röki comes out later this year.


Spiritfarer

The general concept of Spiritfarer is deceptively bleak. As a ferrymaster to the deceased, it’s the player’s job to fulfill the final wishes of spirits before seeing them off to the great beyond. While the premise might seem gruesome, however, the world of Spiritfarer is one of the most delightful I’ve seen in quite some time.

In what can only be described as playing a cartoon, every facet of Spiritfarer is imbued with charm and personality. From the gorgeous hand-drawn animation to the ambient sounds of the sea around around your ship, the entire experience screams “cozy” loud and clear. (There’s even a hug button!)

Then there are all the things you’ll be able to do in the meantime. Though helping spirits ascend is your end goal, you’ll also have the chance to befriend them, fish on the open seas, farm, cook, craft, and more along the way. Combine this with the studio’s emphasis on creating bonds and experiencing moving stories with the spirit passengers and this has all the potential of being a deeply heartfelt gem of a game.


Sports Story

2017’s Golf Story still stands as one of the funniest games on Switch. Its golf mechanics were strong enough to create a standalone multiplayer mode out of, but it was ultimately the “story” part of “Golf Story” that made it one of the most beloved indie titles on the platform.

Now equipped with a bigger budget and more than a two-man team, Sidebar Games’ Sports Story looks more ambitious than their previous effort in nearly every way. This time around the unnamed protagonist will take part in the decasportathon and will thus likely switch between playing 10 different types of sports. So far we’ve seen glimpses of golf, volleyball, tennis, soccer, and baseball, with fishing expeditions having also been confirmed.

That said, it’ll really come down to how well all of these sports are balanced and how they play into the overarching narrative. If the team can pull off making each sport fun in its own right while still delivering over-the-top setpieces, this could easily be another hole-in-one.


Wooden Nickel

Wooden Nickel is a quaint narrative adventure set in the Old West. Back in the old days, a local newspaper was one of the only ways for strangers to stay up on happenings around town. Developer Brain&Brain took this concept to its limits and designed both the narrative and progression of Wooden Nickel around interacting with newspaper ads.

See an ad for a special at the spitoon? Players can click it and go there to chat with patrons. Read about a job opening at the local printing press? Transport there and apply with the tap of a button.

The newspaper interface, like the rest of the game, is wonderfully minimalistic and sleek. In fact, the entire game takes on a minimalistic aesthetic reminiscent of Brain&Brain’s last game, 2017’s Burly Men at Sea. If you ever wondered what life was like for one of the NPCs in Red Dead–or simply want a quieter, more meditative experience–this might be worth keeping an eye on.


Young Souls

You know what type of indies don’t get enough love nowadays? Beat ’em ups. 2019’s River City Girls went a long way in reigniting interest in the genre and, while Streets of Rage 4 looks to mirror its success, it’s Young Souls that really seems to be pushing the genre forward.

The adventure centers around twins Tristan and Jenn as they uncover a portal to an underground world and try to prevent monsters from destroying life on the surface. By day the twins can chat with locals, shop at different stores around town, and shop at the underground stores for things like weapons and armor. Once night hits, it’s time to travel to the underground world and run 70+ hand-crafted dungeons–no procedural generation here.

Interestingly, one of The Arcade Crew’s biggest pushes is that Young Souls is story-driven. There’ll be story-focused dungeons, people in town will develop over time the more you talk to them, and Tristan and Jenn themselves will start to change as time goes on. Nearly all the characters shown so far burst with personality (thanks in no small part to yet another stunning hand-drawn art style). The last couple years have been great to beat ’em ups, and it’s encouraging to see something as promising as Young Souls releasing in the near future.


Other Promising Indies:

Best Friend Forever (Starcolt)

Eastward (Pixpil)

Haven (The Game Bakers)

Hollow Knight: Silksong (Team Cherry)

The Red Lantern (Timberline Studio)

Brent became infatuated with manga and anime after randomly stumbling upon Vol. 3 of Yu Yu Hakusho on a childhood roadtrip. Today he has a soft spot for colorful JRPGs, cozy anime, and both games and shows that indulge his innate love of adventure. Find him (im)patiently waiting for Animal Crossing: New Horizons and incredibly fulfilled by Fire Emblem: Three Houses @CreamBasics.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Patrick Murphy

    January 7, 2020 at 8:15 pm

    Silksong is just “promising”? Oh, Brent… This is a good list though. As usual, I’m glad to see many of these coming to Switch.

    • Brent Middleton

      January 7, 2020 at 8:31 pm

      Haha, I was expecting a comment like this from you Patrick! I’m glad you like the list overall, though. Cris Tales and Spiritfarer are some of my most anticipated games coming to Switch, period (maybe even right alongside New Horizons).

      • Patrick Murphy

        January 7, 2020 at 8:45 pm

        Roki sounds really interesting, and of course Sports Story is a must for me. I’m also very curious about Red Lantern, and would like to see Wooden Nickel come to Switch; I love old-timey western stuff.

        • Brent Middleton

          January 7, 2020 at 9:02 pm

          Yeah, they’re all pretty enticing! I can vouch for Roki and Wooden Nickel personally, and Sports Story has incredible potential if they can pull off all the sports as well as they did golf (which is a pretty tall order). Really hope some hard dates get announced for some of these soon.

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‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season

Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.

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atelier ryza

The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.

Ryza starting her alchemy journey.

Like a Warm Blanket

Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.

The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.

The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.

The titular Atelier Ryza.

An Intimate Take on Storytelling

Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.

It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.

The town drunk and Lent's father, Samuel.

Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.

The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.

Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.

Atelier Ryza

Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’

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PAX South

This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.

Tunic

Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.

Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.

All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.

Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.

Foregone

Foregone

These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”

Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.

If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.

And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.

The Artful Escape

Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.

As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.

It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.

This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.

For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.

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PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love

A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

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Boyfriend Dungeon

In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.

Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.

There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.

“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

Boyfriend Dungeon

My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.

“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.

The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Boyfriend Dungeon

I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”

Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”

After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.  

Boyfriend Dungeon

Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”

Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.

An arcade environment

“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice, they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”

The overarching story and general experience remain relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”

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