Our favorite games of PAX West 2016

Four days is one too many for any convention, but given the sheer amount of games on display at PAX West this year, it’s easy to see why the extra time was necessary. We produced more videos than any PAX so far (with a few more to come), and feel like we barely scratched the surface of what we wish we could share. So to cut through the lovely, diverse din, we’ve assembled a list of our favorite games at PAX West, including a longer list of the coverage we’ve produced so far. Be sure to shout out your personal picks in the comments. 

The best game of PAX West 2016

Oxygen Not Included - Klei Entertainment

After its short reveal trailer at E3 this year, no one was really sure what to expect from Klei’s next game, but I can safely say Oxygen Not Included has blown away even my highest expectations. It's a space colony builder game a la Dwarf Fortress or Prison Architect, but an alternate title could have been Systems: The Video Game. The sheer number of interconnected systems in the game—along with the massive amount of data Klei makes available if you want to min-max it all—is staggering in the best possible way. Yet through all of its complexity, I was able to jump right into and understand Oxygen Not Included in less than half an hour.

For example, I designated an area of ground to be mined out by my Duplicants (the clone workers that make up your colony) and noticed they looked like they were mining while holding their breath. In fact, they were, as their work made them exhale CO2, which displaced the oxygen in the air and made it impossible to breathe. So they would mine a bit, run to a fresher area, take deep breaths, then get back to work. I made an oxygenator to filter out the CO2 near their work area, but that needed power. So I built a generator and batteries, but all of that equipment started generating too much heat in the air, so I had to build a cooler. And so on and so forth, with granular, numbers driven systems being expressed to me in ways that are easy to understand at a glance.

Oxygen Not Included’s concept isn’t new. Many of these systems are recognizable from the games that inspired it, like Rimworld or Dwarf Fortress, but there’s something distinctly charming about Klei’s presentation of it all. Its hand-drawn art style and simple side perspective made me want to keep playing and keep building. I didn’t even get very far, but already saw new systems that will help push the game further—like a Duplicant’s “entitlement” stat slowly rising to force you to build them nicer amenities. Oxygen Not Included should be hitting Early Access this Winter, and I’ll be holding my breath like one of my Duplicant workers until then.

—Tom Marks

Tom's personal picks

BattleTech - Harebrained Schemes

BattleTech’s rough terrain is what excited me most. I’m so jaded by clean, flat surfaces covered in hexes or squares in turn-based strategy games. But BattleTech is rough and rugged, a mech game that feels gritty and hits hard. I nearly lost during my half hour demo, and if I had had a larger campaign to think about with characters to upgrade and mechs to repair, I probably would have restarted the mission. Positioning is key in BattleTech, and it’s a skill I’m impatient to practice.

Dropzone - Sparkypants Studios

Made by the creators of Rise of Nations, Dropzone is a competitive RTS that removes base building in favor of micro. You control three mech units at once that respawn, level up, and have abilities like a MOBA, but matches are limited to 15 minutes and are point-based. You score points by killing neutral monsters around the map and cashing in the glowing purple orbs they leave behind at a turn-in spot at the center of the arena. The macro is shifted from split-second build order timing to how you choose to outfit your mechs before a match and which you pick in the draft phase.

The biggest problem Dropzone will have to overcome is public perception. It’s a F2P game that looks a lot like StarCraft in gameplay videos, and sounds a lot like a MOBA in its description. Aesthetic similarities aside, Dropzone is going to be incorrectly put behind the mental barricade of “another F2P MOBA” by a lot of players before they even understand what it actually is—which is a shame, because it’s one of the freshest takes on the 1v1 competitive RTS I’ve seen in a long time. 

James' personal picks

Thimbleweed Park - Terrible Toybox

I didn’t expect to be as smitten with Thimbleweed Park as I am, but after Ron Gilbert walked me through a short demo, I’m dying to point and click and solve a murder. The pitch is simple: it’s a classically styled comedy adventure game set in an Twin Peaksy town. I say styled, because Thimbleweed Park doesn’t ignore 20 years of evolved design outright. The backdrops are alive with detail and subtle effects not possible using old tech, traversal is quick and snappy, and the puzzles are designed with every potential player in mind.

I grew up on adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Pajama Sam, but I can understand that their puzzle design isn’t exactly intuitive in the rearview. When I think about my favorite modern adventure games, Botinacula and Samorost 3, they can be obtuse at times, but mitigate frustration through the use of simpler interactions or clever hint systems. Thimbleweed Park is still designed with strange, convoluted adventure game logic in mind, but this time, they’re including an easy mode. It doesn’t outright get rid of the harder puzzles, but solves the more rubber-chicken-pulley-ish steps of the bunch beforehand. I’ll be playing on the harder difficulty, but I like the idea of making an adventure game more accessible without compromising the original vision for old-fashioned players.

Diluvion - Arachnid Games

The ocean is creepy. I don’t know what’s going on down there. Is it just more fish? Are they bigger? What’s the teeth situation? Diluvion probably has a good theory. It’s a deep sea submarine exploration game where you putter around huge underwater environments, salvage wrecked ships and buried treasure, and engage in desperate battles against aggressive subs. While Abzu looked at the prettier side of ocean life, Diluvion dives into its eerie bits. Humanity is trapped beneath a thick layer of ice after a great flood washes away all of civilization. So you set out for the bottom in search of a revelation.

But intrigue and good looks aren’t all Diluvion has going for it—the crew management evokes equal parts FTL and Dragon Age. Press a button and the perspective shifts to a cross section of the submarine wherein you can converse with your crew members or move them between different stations—off of weapons to hull repairs, for example. It’s a smart way to make a 3D exploration game feel more strategic and alive without bogging it down with heavy simulation systems and UI elements. And that art! Phew. It adds so much personality to such a dark, dreary setting.

Check out the rest of our PAX West 2016 coverage:

There's a lot more from PAX West to see. Browse our PAX West 2016 tagged page, check out our PAX West YouTube playlist, or pick and choose from the list below.

James Davenport

James is stuck in an endless loop, playing the Dark Souls games on repeat until Elden Ring and Silksong set him free. He's a truffle pig for indie horror and weird FPS games too, seeking out games that actively hurt to play. Otherwise he's wandering Austin, identifying mushrooms and doodling grackles.