Promising indie games we saw at PAX Australia 2019

(Image credit: Fan Club)

PAX Australia just hit Melbourne over the weekend, bringing with it a flock of Untitled Goose Cosplayers and long lines for the VR freeplay area, as well as a PAX Rising section devoted to indie games that's bigger than it's ever been before. Indie games have begun spreading out of their dedicated section as well, with the NEXT Exhibit (returning for its second year) highlighting underrepresented creators, and indies popping up in the tabletop and console areas as well. There were too many for us to tell you about all of them, but here are 10 of our favorites.

The Rewinder (Misty Mountain Studio) 

(Image credit: Misty Mountain)

The Rewinder is a 2D puzzle and exploration game with gorgeous pixel-art, drawing from "Chinese mythology and folklore". As the name implies, the protagonist is able to shift backwards and forwards through time, "between the reality and the beyond", which no doubt proves helpful in their quest to chaperone spirits from the Underground back into life. 

It was hard to get in the mood for this quiet and meditative game on a blaring convention floor, but it's undeniably beautiful. The team uses an effective blend of ink painting and pixel-art styles, and the game promises a mix of puzzle-solving and dungeon spelunking. It's set to release some time in 2020. – Shaun Prescott

Acid Knife (Powerhoof)

From the studio behind Crawl, Acid Knife is a feverish psychedelic platformer starring a grunt-ish skeleton creature. As far as I can tell it's set in a dank underground warren, and your playable creature attacks with a sword, most effectively against the glowing red pustules growing on otherwise monochrome enemies. These enemies drop gems, which you'll use to open doors. 

Hardly a groundbreaking concept on paper, but it's Acid Knife’s art style that really shines: think Devil Daggers crossed with something by Edmund McMillen. In other words, it delicately skirts the line between cartoonish and genuinely creepy. Acid Knife won;t likely release for a while as it's still early in development, but Powerhoof has been pumping out smaller games at a steady clip of late, if you want to take a look. – Shaun Prescott 

Unpacking (Witch Beam) 

If you've ever moved furniture and thought, "this is a bit like Tetris", Unpacking is that feeling as a videogame. Each level is a different living space you move to—the current demo a teenage bedroom followed by a three-room apartment, but the full game will feature levels like your first share house and an apartment shared with your partner. You open boxes and re-home your possessions. That's the game.

It's relaxing, but it's also a way of expressing yourself. Like The Sims it lets you rotate objects to get them in the perfect spot, and every choice is personal. Which way around do you place the toilet roll? Do you stack small plates on big ones? It's a good spectator game, other people judging as you play. I had a queue of people behind me while I was trying to figure out where in the closet to fit all these bras, which was acutely embarrassing. Why do I own so many bras? — Jody Macgregor

Best Friend Forever (Starcolt) 

Dream Doggy. That's it, that's the tweet. Best Friend Forever is a dating sim where you use an app called Woofr that sets you up with fellow dog owners, because what's the point of dating someone if their dog is incompatible with your dog? Your dog in this case being a temperamental shiba inu named Cheeseball, who you have to look after and train up when you're not finding love in the extremely dog-friendly Rainbow Bay.

The writing's funny and the dogs are cute, what else do you need to know? It's the only time I can think of I've seen people queuing at PAX to play a visual novel. — Jody Macgregor

Chaos Tavern (DragonBear Studios) 

Four players run a fantasy tavern together, serving potions and meals while also chasing off invading monsters and cat burglars who are literal cats. It's obviously similar to Overcooked, but much less stressful, with recipes that only involve a couple of steps and generous timers. 

Local multiplayer is always a hard sell but this could fill a niche for people who want a game like Overcooked, only without the bit at the end where you're no longer on speaking terms with the other players. The fantasy theming is pleasant too, with bobble-head adventurers for customers, shy water elementals who have to have their orders teased out of them, and a lycanthrope shopkeeper called the WaresWolf. — Jody Macgregor

Dead Static Drive (Fanclub) 

(Image credit: Fan Club)

A horror driving game, Dead Static Drive has been around for a while now—it’s been in development since at least 2016, and is due to release in 2020. If you can imagine a modern Lovecraftian take on the ye olde top down Grand Theft Auto games (the studio describes it on Steam as 'Grand Theft Cthulhu') you’re edging in the right direction. It’s an interesting concept and cheerfully enough, it’s not all style over substance: it feels good in hand, and you can sense the sinister vibes even on a loud showroom floor. – Shaun Prescott

Speaking Simulator (Affable Games) 

One of the best games at PAX last year is still coming along nicely. Speaking Simulator is about being a robot trying to pass for human by manipulating your mechanical face as it sparks and twitches, and now it's even more complex (and has facial recognition controls in case mouse-and-keyboard isn't hard enough, which I didn't get to try). 

I struggled through a job interview where I had to click and drag my facial expression by following arrows, manipulate my tongue to hit green lights in my mouth with WASD, and shift a smile slider up and down at the same time. It's hectic, mistakes making teeth fly and eyeballs pop. Meanwhile, the boss was treating it like I was doing fine because he was a kombucha-drinking fitness freak and too self-obsessed to notice my oddness. The people you interact with on dates or while delivering the State of the Union (after you become president, of course) blithely accept your glitchy tongue unfurling, which is just the right kind of surreal. — Jody Macgregor

Wayward Strand (Ghost Pattern) 

Wayward Strand is a point-and-click adventure set in a giant airborne hospital. As "intrepid teenage journalist" Casey Beaumaris, you’ll wander the halls of this floating marvel, talking to residents, figuring them out, and no doubt unmasking various intrigues. 

I don’t think Wayward Strand will deliver huge dark conspiracies or anything: studio Ghost Pattern describes it as a "touching, empathetic narrative game", and based on what I saw on the showroom floor, the majority of Beaumaris’s time is spent in conversation with the airborne hospital’s varied inhabitants. The game’s style and setting has a dreamy aura about it, and the art style captures the game's 1970s setting very nicely. – Shaun Prescott

The Vigilante Proclivities of the Longspur (Irreverent Pixel Feats) 

Another point-and-click adventure, The Vigilante Proclivities Of The Longspur definitely takes its visual stylings from the early ‘90s Lucasarts hits. The PAX demo I tinkered with will soon be available on the studio’s site, but the long and short of it is: you’re a maladjusted rich industrialist who moonlights as the nominal Longspur—an armored vigilante who, as far as I can tell, sides with humanity in the ye olde human versus machine scenario. It’s definitely one to keep an eye on if you like pointing, clicking, and wacky transhumanist speculations.  – Shaun Prescott

Warhammer Underworlds Online (Steel Sky Productions)

Yes, I found a Warhammer game. The Age of Sigmar setting has had its own card game for a while, but the turn-based tactics of Underworlds seems like a more apt use of its world of bashy, armored badasses. Underworlds Online is a direct adaptation of a set of skirmish-level tabletop rules, played on a hex grid with deckbuilding to give you a unique set of powers and such. It'll have AI bot matches as well as a one-on-one online mode, and I've got my fingers crossed that it does well enough to make it worth adding a campaign. 

I don't have the time or money to collect and paint a squad of heroes with giant shoulderpads to clonk around a table while rolling special dice, but I'll happily play a digital version if it means I don't have to smell acrylic paint ever again. — Jody Macgregor

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.