Day 1 of PAX is down, and with it comes a slew of indie game impressions. Whether it’s with cozy spirit bonding or pinbrawl action, PAX West’s indie showing this year is already off to a strong start.
Creature in the Well
Creature in the Well is a flashy pinbrawl dungeon crawler that draws inspiration from Zelda, Breakout, and the visual style of Mike Mignola. The game manages to beautifully combine hectic pinball mayhem with a strikingly minimalistic art style. Your character — a lone, sentient robot — acts as the pinball flipper and performs three key actions: striking, charging, and dashing.
Striking is fairly straightforward and allows you to hit projectiles back with a swing of your weapon, but where Creature in the Well innovates on the controls is with charging and dashing. The charge mechanic allows you to hold up to three balls that can be infused with energy, giving them greater speed and power. Combined with the dash mechanic, you quickly develop a rhythm of resource management as you figure out how best to maneuver hazardous environments while still keeping your arsenal full.
Each room you traverse in the dungeon is filled with different obstacles and hazards, from turrets to bumpers to floating orbs that damage you. It starts out simple enough, but your screen eventually fills up with a crazy amount of noise. The funny thing is that it all works out rather well; I could still easily follow my character’s movements, and whenever I got damaged or missed a shot I had no one to blame but myself. There are some issues when you’re down to the last couple pylons or turrets, but for the most part, Creature in the Well is the pinball-dungeon-crawler game I never knew I wanted.
Heartbound is a SNES-era-style RPG that follows Lore, a young boy who has set out to find his best friend, a dog named Baron. Stylized in stark 16-bit colors and geometry, the game tells a very personal story of mental health, and how to reconcile that into one’s life. Like other top-down RPGs, Heartbound features a diverse cast of characters and a wide open world to explore and interact with. It does throw some neat twists at the genre, like its implementation of WarioWare-esque mechanics during unique minigames that appear every now and then to give more interactive context to certain events.
Of particular note with Heartbound is its sandbox approach to progression. While the overarching story is linear, the way you proceed through events in the game is up to the player. Different interactables and events will change how Lore perceives the world around him as he moves forward. The end result is a rather fascinating, Myers-Briggs type of storytelling that creates a personal bond between the player and the narrative.
An interesting conversation I had with Pirate Software, the developer, was about how to release a game like Heartbound in a post-Undertale world. Fandoms, social media, and even press are quick to bandwagon an opinion, and Heartbound received an unfair amount of criticism for perceived influences from Undertale. The way Pirate Software explained it was that games like these are simply unfamiliar to a contemporary audience. So, when something like Undertale comes around, it’s many peoples’ first experience with an RPG of that kind, as they are unaware of titles like Yume Nikki or OFF that came years before. Heartbound aims to move past that and create an identity for itself, while still remembering the games that came before.
Character-driven games are my bread and butter, and I can happily add Mutazione to that list. You play as Kai, a young girl who travels to the island community of Mutazione to take care of her ailing grandfather. She meets an oddball cast of characters, many of whom are still reeling from a tragedy that struck a few years prior. As time passes, Kai has the chance to develop a rapport with these people while learning more about who they are, and what they’ve gone through.
As a narrative-based game, Mutazione naturally features a lot of dialogue. The writing does a fantastic job of creating a wistful, nostalgic mood that’s further strengthened by one of the game’s unique mechanics: gardening. All throughout the island, Kai can plant a wide variety of seeds, and help them grow with different songs that she learns, each of which are based around certain emotions.
The gardening aspect is absolutely lovely, as each plant creates unique, procedurally generated instrumentals. When you cultivate an entire garden, these instrumentals coalesce into a gorgeous soundscape that acts as a calming backdrop to character conversations. Mutazione takes time at a slow, ponderous pace, and asks you to do the same.
I can’t sing this game’s praises enough. Spiritfarer glows with such an infectious charm that you can’t help but smile when playing it. Everything from the visual design to how it plays gets at the core of what Japanese anime and manga fans call “iyashikei” — or, “healing.” In Spiritfarer you play as Stella, a spritely ferrymaster to the deceased who helps the dead find peace with themselves so that they can move into the afterlife.
Spiritfarer styles itself as a “casual management game.” As you pilot your ferry across a vast ocean expanse, running errands for the spirits on board, you have a chance to dig into a wide variety of smaller minigames like fishing and gardening. Over time, your ferry will even expand to house more spirits, or add new rooms and locations. The developers have cleverly incorporated downtime as a key component in the gameplay loop by filling that space with these management systems.
Drawing from such things as Animal Crossing and Studio Ghibli, Spiritfarer is unabashedly a game whose primary drive is to put the player in a state of comfort and relaxation. The world captures a wistfully nostalgic feel with its gorgeous environments, vibrant color palettes, and expressive characters. There are so many little details, like sliding off roofs or hugging spirits, that create a wonderful feedback loop; it just feels good to play this game.
Even in the small demo, I was already feeling my heartstrings getting tugged at. If Spiritfarer wasn’t already on your radar, it absolutely should be.
Wintermoor Tactics Club
I’ve covered Wintermoor Tactics Club in the past, and my impression remains the same: it’s pretty freaking great. Set in 1981 at the prestigious Wintermoor Academy, you lead the Tactics Club in a battle royale against other school clubs so that you can be the last one standing.
While the 80s aesthetic may be slipping out of fashion, Wintermoor does a fantastic job of having the setting blend into the background rather than feature it up-front and center as its own character. All the kids feel like they’ve come straight out of a John Hughes or Robert Zemeckis movie, where everyone has a distinct quirky personality without being overly cartoony. The result is a sense of humor so cleverly dumb that you can’t help but laugh at it.
In the year since I last played Wintermoor, it has developed a considerable amount of polish, both in visual and gameplay design, and is incredibly accessible without compromising either of those aspects. The game has a soft, painted feel to it that lends itself well to the casual, accessible approach. I’m quite used to more crunchy tactics games like the Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem series, but Wintermoor successfully manages to distill the essence of a tactics game down to its base components. The result is a strategy game that offers a fun challenge, but is easy enough for anyone to pick it up, regardless of experience.