PAX West 2019 continues to chug along! There are way too many indies for me to cover, but this batch of three packs a lot of personality and rises above the noise.
You might have heard a story like this before. Crisbell, a meek young girl from a farming village, discovers that she’s a Time Mage and has the ability to peer into the past and future. Armed with that knowledge, she hopes to save her friends, family, and hometown from certain destruction at the hands of the Empress of Time and her minions.
Cris Tales has a story that takes a classical approach to grand fantasy JRPG narratives and it works rather well. The great thing about the JRPG formula is that players know exactly what to expect from the genre. In order for any new titles to stand out, they need to have an exceedingly original or stylized presentation. Cris Tales excels on both fronts by utilizing an incredibly striking color palette and strong geometric designs (reminiscent of old 60s cartoons) that strongly evoke the same kind of storybook wonder that Child of Light did. The animation is criminally gorgeous and an absolute joy to watch, whether it’s the fluid battle UI or the stylishly expressive cast of characters.
While Cris Tales doesn’t stray too far from your typical turn-based JRPG combat (with timing based attack/defense), it offers enough gimmicks to make it interesting. The key mechanic is Crisbell’s time mage abilities, which allow her to see the past, present, and future all at once. Time manipulation plays an important role both in and out of combat. When you’re exploring, you can directly affect events in the past or future so that you can make progress in the present. In battles, Crisbell can lock her enemies in time to give her an edge in combat. For example, the demo’s boss fight pitted me against someone who was heavily armored. Using a party member’s water ability, my enemy gained the wet condition, after which I used Crisbell to fling them into the future. This caused their armor to rust, allowing me to punch through their defenses.
Cris Tales may not be trying to reinvent the wheel, but it’s doing a damn good job of polishing it to a fine sheen.
Elsie brings Mega Man X/Zero’s brand of fast-paced action platforming mechanics into a new generation of roguelikes. The titular heroine runs, guns, and wall jumps her way through procedurally generated levels, gaining randomized powerups along the way. While comparisons might be drawn to another Mega Man-esque roguelike, 20XX, Elsie is different in subtle, but impactful ways.
An important piece of Elsie’s design is building upon mechanics that give the player more granular control over what Elsie is capable of. This comes through in two key ways: movement and customization. Elsie’s movement mechanics have two layers: function and initiative. Elsie can dash and parry, allowing her to either negate enemy attacks or phase through them with a quick burst of speed. Pretty standard functions. The “initiative” aspect comes from how the dash and parry mechanics can be pushed further: dashing damages enemies and parrying creates an opportunity to recover energy. These expand the player’s toolkit and allow for on-the-fly improvisation, rewarding skill, timing, and quick-thinking.
The second important part of Elsie’s design is build customization. As a roguelike, the game features randomized artifacts, items, and abilities. Where it goes one step further is how it bases these drops around archetypes, like a lightning build where attacks arc between enemies. Similar to Slay the Spire, Elsie relies on the player to think about pickup synergy as you progress further and further into the game. You might, for example, pick up a weapon that has a chance to freeze enemies, which would directly tie into an artifact that recharges energy whenever you proc a freeze effect. With dozens of different build combinations, Elsie offers a satisfying sense of player agency that the Mega Man formula greatly benefits from.
This game was brutal in every sense of the word. From the visuals to the level design, Revenant’s Reach has been built from the ground up to be demanding, but challenging. Reminiscent of games like I Wanna Be the Guy or Celeste, Revenant’s Reach offers precision platforming in a dark fantasy package. Your character, a nameless knight, must maneuver his way through morbid scenes of carnage and fight against terrifying nightmare creatures.
Much like other precision platformers, Revenant’s Reach is designed as a series of puzzles to be solved, whether that’s finding the right path to avoid getting hit or timing your dodges correctly. It only takes one hit for your character to die, so you need to pull off your attempts with near-perfection in order to progress. Thankfully, checkpoints are frequent and downtime between deaths is minimal, so your momentum never gets lost.
In keeping its control scheme relatively trim, the game abides by a philosophy of easy to learn, (incredibly) hard to master. Core gameplay mechanics comprise two distinct parts: movement and combat. Both offer a variety of tools for the player to approach different problems, like deflecting projectiles, swinging over spike pits, or powering up your punches to stun enemies. At the end of every level is a boss waiting to beat the everloving hell out of you with a variety of attack patterns. The boss encounter in the demo was really what hooked me onto Revenant’s Reach; it was a satisfyingly tense experience to go through that fight and all the different attacks knowing you couldn’t even take one hit.
Matching Revenant’s Reach’s vicious gameplay is its equally brutal aesthetic. Strong shades of blue and red color the screen as you make your way through screens full of bloody carnage. Crimson spikes plunge sickeningly into your flesh as you die repeatedly, a grim orchestral score pulsing in the background. Yet it’s all in service of that one moment, that singular second of triumph after you finally overcome an obstacle and prove you’re worthy of the challenge.