On the world stage, Tokyo Game Show is seen as Japan’s premiere gaming expo, but for me personally, TGS has been a show of diminishing returns for many years. Nowadays, the event I get most excited about in Japan is BitSummit.
This two day event is not necessarily that dissimilar to the indie spaces at PAX, or other consumer shows, but it’s nonetheless an awesome window into what’s happening in the indie scene within Japan, and BitSummit itself still feels very much like a grass roots celebration of gaming: a space being shared by everyone, with tiny start-up studios rubbing shoulders with well-known, high profile industry figures.
It’s a very international event too, so in addition to the Japan-based indies, there are plenty of devs who’ve travelled from far and wide to show off their games. This year I’ve decided to give you all an overview of the games that I enjoyed playing most, regardless of where they’re being developed. (Last year I focused on titles being developed in Japan.)
Also please bear in mind that this is by no means a definitive list of great games at BitSummit. Even over the course of two full days I simply wasn’t able to check out everything, so apologies to any devs working on awesome projects that I missed.
Here we go!
Developer: Radical Fish Games | Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC | More info
CrossCode has a pretty intriguing story set-up. As Lea, you wake up on a massive cargo ship that’s docked some distance from a futuristic city called The Playground, which plays host to an MMO called CrossWorlds. Everyone in The Playground is an avatar, in that they’re all being controlled from another location, but the city itself is a real city on a real planet. The staff Lea meets on the ship are flesh and blood humans – support staff for the game – and Lea herself seems to have an involved history with CrossWorlds, but is unable to remember. She’s the classic video game amnesiac protagonist and is (literally) mute, but I’m totally sold on that being used to drive the mystery behind her story and that of CrossWorlds itself.
The broader game design is very much an action RPG, so you can expect quests, equipment, character progression, etc., all anchored by a characterful 16-bit presentation. Combat is built around melee attacks, dodges and “Balls” – projectiles you can aim and throw, and that can be given elemental properties. As the name suggests, they can also be bounced off walls to hit switches and the like, so balls very much factor into puzzle solving. There’s a solid foundation here – and the game is already feeling super polished – so after my initial introduction at BitSummit, I’m keen to play some more… which I can do because CrossCode is in early access. Woo!
Developer: Vitei Backroom | Platforms: PC | More info
Paper Garden was one of the most soothing experiences at this year’s show. A VR prototype, it was created by the tiny Vitei Backroom team in five weeks and elegantly captures the simple joy of throwing paper aeroplanes. You simply pluck one of the planes flying around you out of the air, then toss it, using the relevant Oculus Touch controller to help guide its flight a little – diving, climbing or curving around to one side. It takes a few moments to get a feel for, but quickly becomes intuitive, allowing you to shoot for distant targets, curve toward a target behind a tree, or deliberately toss a plane high into the air before diving down onto a target.
Paper Garden is more than just a simple target gallery, however. By hitting the eye-like golden targets you’re bringing life back to a grey world that’s been “overrun by an ancient blight”. Colour sweeps across the garden, activating other targets and making trees and shrubs spring up. I love this idea conceptually, and the natural beauty of the garden itself is neatly juxtaposed with the mechanical – yet also somewhat mystical – targets themselves, which build towards a final towering golden monolith to complete the demo. The world itself also responds to your actions in more subtle ways – miss a target and hit the ground or a wall and a bush will sprout at that point.
Paper Garden seems like exactly the sort of accessible and immersive experience the various VR platform holders would welcome, so here’s hoping we see this on a digital storefront sometime soon.
Developer: Pixel Perfex | Platforms: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One | More info
Imagine taking the shooter gameplay of a classic series like R-Type and adding in a Monster Hunter twist – that’s Earth Atlantis. In it, you explore a sprawling underwater world where your only real targets are number of gigantic bosses, listed out on the hud and indicated by blips on the overworld map.
Earth Atlantis sticks closely to its shooter roots, as opposed to fully embracing the Monster Hunter influence. It’s not like you kit out your ship for individual bosses before venturing forth, in other words, but you will want to upgrade your weapons and find the most effective sub-weapon for each boss. There are also a heap of different ships to unlock, each of which has its own style of weaponry.
Earth Atlantis is certainly intriguing from a gameplay perspective, but it also has quite a unique visual aesthetic, looking very much like an animated sketch on parchment. This, combined with its retro mechanical machines helps make its post-apocalyptic world feel ancient and steampunk-y. It’s being developed by a two person team in Thailand!
Developer: kass-stwa | Platforms: Mac, PC | More info
Perhaps best described as a frenetic retro platformer, in Heads Run you’re literally a disembodied head, but boy can you move. The sense of momentum here as you hop, leap and dash through a series of micro-gauntlets, while spikes pop up, lasers fire and rockets fly in your wake just feels great. Moving at speed is at the core of the gameplay here, and there’s definitely some techniques to learn in order to most efficiently wall jump and hit switches and the like.
Heads Run has an energy all its own, and a vibe all its own, helped along by the monochromatic old-school CRT presentation and the absolutely perfect sound effects.
Developer: Joakim Sandberg | Platforms: PC, PS4, Vita | More info
Behind the colourful, charming sci-fi world of Iconoclasts’ early going lies a story dealing with themes of religion and self-determination. Lead character Robin – one of the iconoclasts of the title – simply wants to be a mechanic and to help people, but the society she lives in is controlled by One Concern, a sinister religious authority that has deemed such a profession sacred; out of reach to anyone other than those anointed. Iconoclasts, then, has a story to tell, delivered through its layered world and distinctly individual characters.
It feels fantastic too, with responsive controls and a great flow to the gameplay. Robin is a capable protagonist – agile, powerful and with a wrench that factors into puzzle solving right from the get-go. In fact, even from the limited amount I’ve played, making progress is immensely satisfying thanks to the cleverly designed environmental puzzles. And beyond that are a host of places, people and bosses – a veritable mountain of gameplay.
I’m greatly looking forward to playing the full game, and the good news is that Iconoclasts is basically done. That’s likely good news for Swedish solo developer Joakim Sandberg too, as he’s been working on Iconoclasts for seven years, carefully crafting absolutely everything you see and hear in the game.
Developer: Nachobeard | Platforms: Android, iOS, PC | More info
In Cerulean Moon you don’t control your character so much as you control the world around that character. By swiping left and right you move the world left and right and the avatar with it. It’s a cool central idea that’s then built upon in a number of inventive ways. For one, the level design in this platformer is largely built around verticality. You can’t jump, after all, so a lot of the time you’re actually falling, shifting the world back and forth to avoid obstacles and hit the right platforms. Unlike many platformers, however, where falling is subject to inertia, in Cerulean Moon you have a hell of a lot of in-air control, which makes any movement feel super snappy and responsive. Once you’ve got the hang of it, in other words, you can be really precise in your swipes.
The control scheme also gives Cerulean Moon an interesting sense of instant momentum that I really like, allowing you to whip across to a platform while falling, or rapidly propel the protagonist down corridors if you want to. There’s one sequence I played where this massive spiked roller comes crashing down through the roof and you have to outrun it along one corridor after another.
The feel of the controls effectively makes traditional platforming challenges new again – you might be weaving your way between lava waterfalls or spike traps, or using water jets to boost you into the air, but doing this stuff isn’t in your muscle memory in the same way it is with regular platform controls.
While the main game itself will likely be short, there’s a lot here. Orbs collected can be spent on challenge levels separate to the main missions, and later in the game players unlock the ability to bounce off enemies, which means playing through again will feel quite different. Levels also have hidden challenge rooms, while even trying to collect everything in a level will require quite a few runs at it – it’s really easy to miss things as you fall.
Cerulean Moon is being developed by a three person team led out of Spain, and while it’s been in production for two years, the first prototypes date back three years. The game is currently built for mobile and tablets, but the plan is to also bring the game to PS4 and utilise the Dual Shock’s touch panel.
Developer: Springloaded | Platforms: Switch | More info
GORSD, or Grid of Ridiculous Sudden Death, is a party game that riffs on some familiar ideas but does so in a fresh new way. The play fields are a network of paths viewed from top down, and as you run along you paint the path you’re on in your colour: the basic goal being to paint the entire map.
Complicating things, obviously, are the (up to) three other players, also running around. Each player has a single bullet which, once fired, moves back and forth along the path it’s on. Hit another player and they blow up – coating the area with your colour – and then have to respawn, with longer and longer respawns the more times they’ve been hit. You can also kill yourself with your own bullet, unless you’re holding down the right shoulder button, in which case you can gather it back up, but that’s a trade-off, as you won’t paint the grid while in that state.
On top of this, if you hold in a direction when you fire your bullet, you can make it go around the next corner and potentially loop all the way back around. The ability to shoot around corners adds a whole lot to the core gameplay.
It’s all a little confusing at first, but quickly makes sense, and is a heap of fun with four people. The game has a bunch of maps, with different patterns of paths and a variety of other elements, such as paths you can’t travel down, but you can fire your bullet along. There are also a number of ways to modify the rules. Oh, and there’s single player content… which I haven’t tried yet, but am quite curious about.
GORSD is being developed by Springloaded in Singapore, a small studio run by James Barnard, an ex-LucasArts industry veteran. The studio is currently working on six, count ‘em – SIX – Switch games.
Developer: Megusta Game | Platforms: PC | More info
Unsouled is a pretty accomplished title given that it’s the work of a solo South Korean developer – Jung JinSub – a former banker who gave up that career in 2013 to start making games. His first title was a Picross clone called Pixelo, which was successful enough to fund this game, which is much more expansive in scope.
Unsouled is a pixel-art hack’n’slash game with light RPG elements and a focus on skill-driven combat. Its main source of inspiration, according to JinSub, is Onimusha 2, so you’re able to absorb the souls of downed foes to restore health and stamina, and spend accumulated points on upgrading your character. Combat is built on simple systems – dash, attack, defend, specials – with complexity arising through timing. With the right timing you can chain attacks together to produce a number of different combos, and dashes can also be chained.
One thing I particularly liked while playing Unsouled was how interactive the environments are. There’s some serious destructibility on offer here, from expected stuff like barrels or the pews in a church through to smashing up chunks of stone balustrades or slashing through trees. There are gameplay ramifications too – cut down a tree and it can actually do damage if it falls on you, or on enemies. You can potentially factor that into combat. Those fallen trees are then obstacles – an archer standing behind a fallen tree can’t shoot through it.
It’s cool to see that level of destruction in a retro game like this, and it’s part of an impressive overall attention to detail. Unsouled has a day/night cycle, for instance, so the feel of combat changes as the visibility does.
It’s also worth noting that JinSub actually had no real experience with complex pixel graphics before this game, so he studied Hyper Light Drifter intensively to discover the techniques used within that game. Colour palette aside you can really see the similarities. When he told me that, I asked why he didn’t just bring an artist on board. His response? Because he was so new to creating games, he didn’t have any connections or friends within the indie scene, so he just decided to do it all himself. Woah.