PAX East post facto

April 15, 2012

PAX East took place in Boston last weekend. Some jokingly referred to it as PAX Easter or PAXover East for its congruity with certain well-known holidays. This was my third PAX East, and the second at which my company, Demiurge Studios, has been a presenter at the show.

I actually didn’t hear about my favorite story of PAX until after the show. Remember Paul Christoforo from last year? He was banned from PAX. But he claimed via Twitter to have snuck into the show in costume. Although he refused to prove it by supplying pictures of him at the show, he did post some pictures of the show.

Except they weren’t his pictures. The pictures were actually texted to him after having been taken by Penny Arcade’s business manager Robert Khoo. Paul took the bait and ran with it. Paul was so thick that he didn’t even understand he was pranked until enough people pointed out to him what happened, at which point he finally admitted he didn’t take the photos, but he still insisted he was at the show. Pics or it didn’t happen, Paul.

Now let’s shift gears and recap my favorite games from the show:

Retro/Grade screenshot

Retro/Grade is an impressive-looking space shooter/rhythm game. But unlike your typical space shooter or rhythm game, this one goes in reverse. Due to a rip in the space-time continuum after defeating the final boss in the game, you have to go backwards in time to the start of the game. To do so, you have to “unfire” your shots by being at the right place where you shot them at the time you shot them, in time with the music.

As you progress backwards in each level (which are numbered from 10 down to 1), enemies become undestroyed and you have to dodge their shots, which come backwards from the left, and eventually the enemies unspawn. As you do these things, your score goes down, fittingly. The game can be played with either a plastic guitar or a regular controller, so you don’t need any extra hardware if you don’t already have it. The visuals are absolutely stunning, and the gameplay is mindblowing. I can’t wait to play it—a rep at the show told me it’d be coming out this summer, which is consistent with their Twitter feed.

Also in the category of time bending, Super T.I.M.E. Force is like the lovechild of Braid and Contra. I didn’t get a chance to play this one, but it looks like a great action title. You go around shooting stuff, but if you die, you go back to the start and replay the level along with your former selves. So the more you die, the more yous there are, and the easier it gets. Or at least that’s how I think it works. If that’s not how it works, I have a great idea for a game…

Miegakure screenshot

Miegakure is another entrant in the mind-bending category. It’s a 4D (yes, 4D) puzzle-platformer. Similar in vein to how Mario can rotate into the third dimension in the various Paper Mario titles, you can rotate yourself into the fourth spacial dimension in this game. It also includes Sokoban-type puzzles in some levels—in one level I played there’s a wooden block that you have to push over to the other side of the level in order to be able to jump up to the exit. But all of a sudden, as you’re pushing it, it stops moving for no obvious reason.

Then, if you rotate yourself into the fourth dimension, you see that what looked like a 1x1x1 block was actually a 1x1x1x2 block, and it was getting stuck on an obstacle in another parallel hyperspace. So figuring out those puzzles is a really satisfying challenge. I can’t wait to give Marc Ten Bosch my money for the game, but unfortunately he hasn’t given any indication of a release date yet: it’ll be done when it’s done. Release dates are very fickle things—fans love ’em, developers hate ’em.

Snapshot screenshot

Snapshot is another puzzle game. You play as this cute little robot named Pic, trying to progress through the levels. Your secret weapon: the ability to remove objects from the game world by capturing them in pictures and then re-add them elsewhere (possibly in new orientations).

The first obvious application is moving platforms around. But then more complicated mechanics start getting added in, such as areas of the world where you can’t take pictures or paste them back in. Then there are roving elephants you can bounce around on. Then you learn that objects retain their velocities from when they had their pictures taken, making for some fun Portal-like moments. All in all, it’s another exciting puzzle game coming….some time in the future.

Quantum Conundrum screenshot

Hey look, another puzzle game! Are you sensing a pattern yet? Quantum Conundrum is a Portalesque 3D action-puzzle-platformer designed by Kim Swift. Swift was the lead designer of the aforementioned Portal back at Valve, before she went off to Airtight Games.

Instead of a portal gun, you have an Inter-Dimensional Shift glove, or IDS, that lets you switch dimensions at will. The three dimensions shown in the PAX demo were the Fluffy Dimension, which makes everything light and fluffy; the Heavy Dimension, which makes everything super-heavy; and the Slow Dimension, which slows down everything (in addition to the regular dimension, where everything has its usual properties). Certain objects are too heavy to lift normally, but if you switch into the Fluffy Dimension, you can lift them up and move them around to activate switches, make jumping platforms, etc. Other objects might get incinerated by lasers, but if you switch into the Heavy Dimension, they’re suddenly strong enough to withstand the power of the lasers and block their paths, allowing you to get by. So there’s a lot of potential for interesting puzzles there. Coming in 2012 to a console near you.

(Side note: I managed to freeze the game while playing it, but the rep at the show assured me that it was just the console overheating. I’m well aware that games have bugs, especially unfinished games, but given that the PS3 I was playing on was inside a locked cabinet with very little airflow, and given the propensity of PS3s to overheat, I’m inclined to believe him on this one.)

Rock Band Blitz screenshot

After a drought of Rock Band games, Rock Band Blitz brings the series back to life. Unlike its predecessors, it’s a downloadable title for modern consoles that uses regular controllers instead of fake plastic instruments, so it’s very similar to the earlier Harmonix titles Amplitude and Frequency, with a Rock Band skin.

Each instrument track only has two notes, playable by flicking the left and right analog sticks in any directions, and the instrument tracks can be switched between freely at will. Unlike Rock Band Unplugged‘s plate spinning mechanics, which autoplayed tracks for a short while after playing a section perfectly, Blitz is a lot more novice-friendly and doesn’t require hitting every note. As you play a track, you “level up” that instrument. There’s a level cap which encourages you to switch tracks, but the level cap gets raised periodically as you hit checkpoints placed through the songs, so there’s plenty of potential for the score micro-optimizers out there (you know who you are). To spice things up even more, there are special powerups you can get, including an Arkanoid-style minigame that releases a bouncing pinball onto the note tracks that you have to keep afloat for extra points while you’re playing the notes in the song.

The big thing that Blitz has going for it is its compatibility with the entire Rock Band catalog of songs—over 3000 and counting. In addition to the set list that will ship with the game, it can import your entire library of Rock Band songs from the rest of the main series. It has an internal tool that converts the songs’ gem tracks into simplified two-note tracks that are both interesting and playable (read: no crazy 200+ BPM bass pedal rolls).

I also attended Harmonix’s panel on Saturday, which discussed the development of Blitz. At one point, as lead designer Chris Foster was discussing the history of the game and its predecessors, he said something to the effect of how he was the only person in that room who had the pleasure of working on a Green Day game. I made sure to correct him.

I’m running out of space and time here (ok not really, but you’re probably starting to run out of patience), so here’s a bulleted list of other games I enjoyed at PAX:

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