Jul 23, 2017 Last Updated 1:57 AM, Jul 23, 2017

From the Desk of The Editor-in-Chief: PAX East - Part I

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The beauty of Boston

"It's not the cold that bothers me so much," muttered – unconvincingly – Shane Gamez, OPN Vice President extraordinaire, "…it's the wind." He had a point. At its coldest, Boston, the host city of PAX East (March 10-12, 2017, hosted at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center), reached 10°F, a far cry from the 30°F historical average for that time of year.  Add the gusts,  and you're freezing after just a few minutes of standing in the elements. But stand gamers did, for this was PAX Boston, one of the largest gaming events in North America (the other? PAX Seattle).

The biting wind, the snow flurries, the mushed-ice piled underfoot – the winter elements didn't stand a chance against the warmth and energy generated by the attendees. The convivial air inside the Convention Center was uncanny. Despite the voluminous turnout and the Olympic-scale exhibition floor, the purpose of the gathering was singular, straightforward: PAX East was, and continues to be, a no-nonsense celebration of gaming, and much to the delight of OPN, this year was a herald of many years of continued success and growth for the indie scene. The caliber and craftsmanship of the releases, across the board, floored us. At best, the exhibition entrants bore a quality that reached a masterful status; at worst, a title might have suffered from misguided enthusiasm, perhaps with some mechanic or narrative issue persisting yet, though the game would still be sharp and fun to play.

Despite what we would come to learn of the simplicity of it all, the OPN team (Shane; Frederic Brizzi, OPN President & Founder; and (yours truly) OPN Editor-in-Chief) arrived the night before, Thursday, not quite sure what to expect. We only knew that, between the frosted sunrises and the evenings of windswept hail, we had an agenda full of meetings with the developers of some awesome-looking titles, and they – the devs and the games – did not disappoint: 2017 is going to be a good year for gaming, folks, believe me.

Press Pass and pre-party

The PAX team should be commended for the exceptional management of the event itself. The "Red Shirts," or "Enforcers," that is, event staff, were generally very helpful and polite. A majority of the staff was local to either Boston or the state of Massachusetts, so their demeanor reflected very positively on the locale.

One of the Red Shirts in particular, Aubrey Shimabukuro, performed the duties of her office with aplomb. She was tasked with womanning the desk at the media room, and day or night, there she was, ready to give us our padlocks to our doggie crates, and threaten us with larceny if we did not claim our belongings by 7 PM (all in good faith: she would only sell off your possessions for college tuition).

However, although Aubrey managed the media room deftly, the fact remains that the room was tucked away towards the back of the Convention Center. Is this the price to pay for easy, unlimited access? I should think not! This access was not granted so that we may veg out and play games all weekend. Any member of the press who was reporting was working, providing a service to both the game developers, in terms of coverage, and the readership of the wider community, by providing an honest and accurate account of events. I only imagine that more events could be covered, or those that were covered could be explored in greater depth, were the media staging area a little closer to the exhibits, rather than out near Logan Airport.

The night before PAX officially started, an informal press party was held to showcase some indie-indie titles. The soiree was the perfect appetizer for the amazing weekend to follow, as we were able to whet our developer appetite on the smaller studios in a casual, relaxed – yet excited – venue. Of particular interest were:

- Michael Sullivan, Lead Developer at Starfall Studios, is working on a really exciting title: Sneaky Ninja. Take Donkey Kong, add Assassin's Creed, multiply by Mini Ninjas, divide by Angry Birds, and add a pinch of Dishonored – all in a tiny, cute, adorably Japanese package

- Glass Knuckle Games was able to showcase the work of its Lead Developer, Dave Gedarovich, with the very creepy first-person horror/mystery Heliophobia

- Seriously fun and high-quality artwork from Jennifer Tella in Skorecery, by Grapplehook Games

- The marvelous grace and disarming charm of the dual-threat (streamer and artist) Jillian Chastain, aka Starlight Skyes, and her partner-in-crime, Game Developer and Twitch Partner QaziTV

- A 3rd person survival-shooter, Breed 2.0 by Exog3n, which has the makings for a great campaign story – but Exog3n will be developing for some time yet

One last note on media – due to a snafu with paperwork, I nearly missed PAX, but everything was sorted out thanks to the stalwart efforts of Chris Toomey with Stride PR. So, thanks, Chris. I'm sorry to hear about David Reid's fried cheese ball with ranch falling into his Johnnie Walker Black, though. That's rough.

The OPN lineup

Who did we see and what did they show us? Here's a quick table of our meetings on Friday. Click on a game to jump to our take on it, or click on the studio or publisher to check them out. Can't find what you're looking for? Check out OPN @ PAX, Part 2 (under development).

Title

Studio

Publisher 

Starfighter Inc.

Impeller Studios

The Frostrune

Grimnir Media

Snow Cannon Games  

Ylands

Bohemia Interactive

Planet Coaster

Frontier Developments

-

Brawlhalla

Blue Mammoth Games

-

Osiris: New Dawn

Fenix Fire

Reverb Triple XP  

Kritika Online

En Masse Entertainment

-

Victor Vran

Haemimont Games

Wired Productions

The Town of Light

Lka.it

Wired Productions

Hob

Runic Games

-

State of Mind

Daedalic Entertainment

Starfighter Inc.

“We want to recapture that intense, immersive feeling of being in the cockpit, in a spacecraft, shooting things and blowing them up real good.” So speaks Lead Designer David Wessman, reflecting on more than four years of development and over $220,000 of crowd-sourced funding for Starfighter Inc. Unfortunately, – truly, given the humbling majesty of the title, both in aesthetics as well as technical accuracy – that fell just short of the $250K goal at the time (June 2015).

But, after meeting with Wessman, a man who is plain passionate about what he does, and feeling his enthusiasm and commitment to the community, it’s clear that their new goal (campaign to be launched shortly) will be met and exceeded. Wessman has one foot firmly planted on Earth – originally, he developed Starfighter in the stolen hours in-between day jobs – and the other foot floating about in orbit, where he leads a team on an exploration of what no-bars realism would look like for space warfare. And it looks beautiful.

Ylands

“The coloring – you see here how the lighting changes on the slopes, the various shades and shadows you see – they're responsive and different for each surface – pulling it off was… very painful.” If ever a man could sound proud and near-exasperated in one breath, it would be Tomaš Palat, Designer for the vibrant, open-world title Ylands. "Don't quote me on that," he teased, chuckling.

But his pain has definitely lead to our gain: Bohemia Interactive, under the stewardship of Project Lead Aleš Ulm, is developing a title that is crisp, with light and seamless handling: find a horse, jump on it, and ride it up a mountain; pick up a cannonball and load it in a cannon, then aim and fire the cannon at a damn, releasing a tidal wave of water; teleport to a jetpack then get frostbite from flying at too high an altitude – Ylands promises to transport you to the sandbox of our youth, replete with the freedom and imagination of a child at play.

The title itself is coming together at the direct behest of CEO Marek Španěl, who wants to explore what lies beyond the games and genres one might consider typical for Bohemia Interactive, such as DayZ,or the Arma series. There are some issues being ironed out – "diving underwater is tricky," says Tomaš (it always is, though) – but it's clear that potential problems are on Bohemia Interactive’s radar. The result of the team’s effort is a visually delectable piece, with flavors of Kingdoms of Keflings and Minecraft, and an intuitive map-and-scenario-generator to boot, all but guaranteeing mountains (appropriately lit and shaded) of user-driven content.

The Frostrune

What more can we say that isn’t already in our review? To quote OPN's Matthew White: "The Frostrune is a magnificent spectacle from all angles: gameplay, art design, sound, and story. Each of these elements has been crafted with great finesse... to create a complete, immersive world."

Audun Refsahl, History Consultant and Co-Writer for Grimnir Media, might actually be to blame for the nippy, inclement weather: perhaps his Frostrune summoned the frost we all endured. "A rune is actually a magical character," Audun explained. "It's carved on a runestone, and you create it by combining other characters. The Frostrune's rune isn't real, but we created it by the same process."

The Frostrune is a top-grade tour-de-force that is smart, beautiful, and haunting. If you play one point-and-click this year, make it The Frostrune. The developers will certainly not be challenged to find new and creative ways to reuse the rich assets developed for The Frostrune, so stay tuned for potential expansions or spin-offs as Grimnir Media continues to establish a name for itself.

Planet Coaster

I had no idea when Sam Denney, the Lead Artist for Planet Coaster, sat me down to show me his team’s design work in Planet Coaster, that I was in for such a treat. I was about to see not so much a video game – though it is, by any measure – but a work of art in motion. The “placo” (pronounced plah-koe) aesthetic, as Sam calls it, is a surreal mix that magically slides between fun and constructed to ultra-realistic, with wooden rollercoasters buttressed by scaffolding that is bolted more accurately than you’d have thought possible – or necessary!

"If you looked up a wooden roller coaster in real life, what it would actually look like, and you look at the support beams, the bolts," Sam said, pointing to the meticulously detailed fastenings on the screen, "the bolts would look just like that. And they would be in the exact same locations." Zoom in on the water, and watch the gorgeous verisimilitude of a shimmering reflection, bursting with color in the pumpkin-orange glow of the setting sun.

The smoothness, Sam boasts, was achieved with close cooperation between the design team and the engine developers, offloading the artwork geometry whenever possible – and always keeping a healthy distance from alphas. What does an obsessive commitment to detail, combined with a simply fun game (inspired by Rollercoaster Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon), get you? Nearly nine thousand positive user reviews on Steam, and a BAFTA nomination.

Brawlhalla

When we approached Brawlhalla's booth, Samantha Leichtamer received us graciously. There seemed to have been a scheduling issue, but she worked her magic and sorted everything out seamlessly: before we knew it, we were seated in an exclusive area (to prevent spoilers), playing Brawlhalla with Blue Mammoth Executive Producer Zeke Sparkes. Brawlhalla is an extremely intuitive, pick-up-and-beat-the-living-hell-out-of-your-opponents title. The gameplay is fast, but not frenetic, and imbued with a feeling of controlled chaos.

OPN VP Shane Games likens the title, artistically and mechanically, to a "2-d version of Smash (Brothers)." I haven’t seriously sat down with a console game in years (with the exception of the glorious Super Smash Bros 64), but, in a testament to the approachability and wonderful design that Blue Mammoth has achieved, you could never tell if you watched me play Brawlhalla against Shane, schooling him 5-to-1.Fortunately for our VP, we played hidden from the public eye because of Mordex – who I picked, of course (my thinking was that usually, new, high-profile characters are OP – perhaps this was this case, given the trouncing).

At the end of the day, the runaway success of Brawlhalla isn’t a big secret. With Zeke Sparkes at the helm, Blue Mammoth has truly emphasized listening to their gamership. The commitment goes so far as a $100,000 World Championship, officially hosted by Blue Mammoth. And for their part, the community finesses the shape the game takes on as it evolves, by providing feedback on lore, mechanics, aesthetics –  you name it, they have a (strong) opinion. Of course, listening to this group isn’t hard, Brawlhalla tends to make you shout and scream, player and spectator alike.

Osiris: New Dawn

Three monitors were set up in one section of the booth, and I might as well have been looking at three different games: a 4X title, a space fighter, and a third-person exploration RPG/shooter. The studio’s founder and CEO, Brian McRae (Supreme Overlord), described the Osiris as “expansive in both breadth and depth.” It's evident that he's a man in love with his beautiful work, or should I say, his wife's beautiful work: Anna McRae (Dragon Lady) is the co-founder and Art Lead for Osiris: New Dawn.

While chatting with Brandon Wallace, Marketing Manager with Reverb Triple XP (Publisher), I could not resist drawing a guarded parallel to No Man’s Sky, in the similar aesthetics and ambition. But that is where the similarities end, as Osiris seems to present with more maturity and self-awareness, and a consistent identity and clear goals. In fact, to combat the risks this genre skirts with a lack of direction, McRae recently introduced a definite, objective-oriented mechanic in the form of missions, some wherein you encounter and ransack, à la Bioshock, the fallen bodies of your comrades.

Osiris, especially on max settings, promises a rich gaming experience. The word "immersive" is thrown around quite frequently, so I'll put it this way: Osiris is out of this world, in all meanings of the phrase.

Kritika Online

Besides the demonstrated expertise En Masse has with the rodeo that is free-to-play (especially going to free-to-play, from subscription), they could put on a clinic on global gaming, as En Masse has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to mount both gaming saddles of the disparate Asian and Western gaming milieus. In North America, and perhaps Europe, gaming is frequently a singular endeavor: we play together online, not in person (though we currently see a resurgence of Couch-Co-Op). On the other hand, Seoul is pockmarked with internet cafes – the digital arcades of the 21st century – where gamers can casually gather and hang out together; games, in this sense, are less ends in themselves, and more a means to connect with one another.

As for, Kritika Online, the action-MMORG set to release later in 2017: it’s gorgeous. Tom Price, PR Manager (ONE PR Studio) – who was deftly navigating his first con – lined up OPN's Shane Gamez with a guided, multiplayer demo. Shane's take: “It’s Tera on speed. You bypass all the MMO stuff – grinding, setting up – and it’s just a super faced-pace, beat-em-up, non-stop action. If the difficulty stays the way it is, it would be too easy, but I think that was a choice for a demo. This game’s pretty hot.”

Victor Vran: Fractured Worlds & The Town of Light

I can’t speak for the psychological thriller The Town of Light, save that my boss, Fred Brizzi, loved it. Perhaps this is because he sees some of his Italian ancestry in the true-to-life maps and textures, based on the vistas of the developer’s hometown Florence. I was right behind him, playing Victor Vran: Fractured Worlds (whose locales take after its Bulgarian roots), and discussing the exciting news with Publicist Cody Martin: Wired Productions is working with both these international studios to bring these titles to console. Now the plebs can enjoy what those of us in the Master Race have enjoyed for some time.

Hob

Runic Games was bustling with excited and friendly staff proudly showing off a demo of their upcoming release: the action-adventure Hob. OPN was greeted by Runic Games' Minister of Culture, Wonder Russell (as wonderful as you might be led to believe), the Token Linux Guy, Sierra Soleil (guardian of their Linux systems), and the Resident Fruit Advocate, Brian Ward (think: Newton, iPhone).

Wonder provided our Vice President, Shane, with a commentated playthrough. “It combines elements of Zelda and Ico. It’s a completely new thing for Runic – they’ve always done top-down Diablo stuff…" remarked Shane. "It’s cool because the creatures, the ‘enemies’ that are in the Hob world, they’re just trying to survive – they’re not necessarily ‘bad guys.” Besides the gorgeous aesthetics, Hob also boasts fluid combat. “It’s fun; for a puzzle game, the combat is like Zelda," continues Shane. His bottom line: "Ico and Shadow of the Colossus fans can rejoice. Hob is what The Last Guardian should have been – and without the wait.”

State of Mind

Finally, we closed out the day with a visit to the widely acclaimed Writer, Designer, and Director Martin Ganteföhr, at the Daedalic booth. Our meeting was brief, as the Enforcers came to escort us out, but in that short time we could see why the German gaming press describes Martin as "perhaps the best German computer playwright." Besides his talent as a game developer, Martin has years of experience in the industry at large, provided him with a keen insight into what gamers want – whether the gamers are aware of that desire or not. State of Mind, the dystopian adventure due for release in mid-2017, looks to be another riveting release from the studio which already has dozens of solid, well-received titles under its belt, such as, most recently, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun and Holy Potatoes! We're in Space?!

Rey Urias

Rey Urias is a professional writer, having spent his career penning textbooks on craniofacial orthodontics, promotional flyers for holiday specials, proposals for multi-million dollar military contracts, and documentation for enterprise IT systems. He has a background in Information Technology, but his favorite technology has always been video games. Growing up, he relished the serenity of Harvest Moon, the strategy of Command & Conquer, the epic experiences of Zelda and BioShock, and the challenges of Call of Duty, Ninja Gaiden, and Soul Calibur. But these days, Rey spends his free time with his amazing wife and adorable daughter - and when he can sneak it in, he plays Smash 64 competitively as poobearninja, the king of the up-smash.

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