When I was at PAX East this year I had the chance to catch up with Square Enix to check out Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age and I learned a very interesting fact.  Did you know that the last major North American console release of a mainline Dragon Quest game was way back in 2005 with Dragon Quest VIII?  I know, that fact blew me away, but looking at the history the other titles were released on handhelds or skipped North America entirely.

There were a few spinoff games that game out, but a numbered Dragon Quest game has not come out in North America for over 13 years.  The team at Square Enix are very aware of this fact and are trying to make this release special and one that stands out from everyone's perceptions of a Dragon Quest title. What I saw convinces me they just may have created something that feels enough like Dragon Quest to be familiar but different enough to attract a larger audience.

The goal of the team was to create a truly new experience in the Dragon Quest universe that focused on a huge single player experience.  They also wanted to deliver a complete experience day one so there will be no post release DLC, the adventure on release day is the vision of the developer. They also wanted to deliver a more mature experience by designing the characters in a more photo realistic meets cel shaded manner.  The end result from what I saw in the demo is a game that feels like a grown up Dragon Quest adventure which is exactly what the developer had in mind.

The story in Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age focuses on a young man who is hailed as the legendary Luminary. He faces his destiny and travels to the capital joined by an old friend to see what he can do to realize his destiny.  Once there the story takes a huge u-turn and our hero is betrayed by the king and his adventure starts in earnest. Like other Dragon Quest titles many companions will be met and join the Luminary on the adventure to stop the resurrection of the Dark One.

The developer has said that relationships with the many companions will be complex and extremely rewarding.  As the story progresses your companions will have their own motivations for joining the quest and may not be what they seem.  The roster we were shown seems quite interesting with a wide variety of companions to enrich the experience as the story progresses.  One of the things I found very interesting was the mature tone of the game which I typically did not associate with Dragon Quest.

Gameplay has come a long way since 2005 with many modern touches to the classic JRPG formula being added to this release.  Combat is turn based but very fast and the character can move around freely during combat (but that does not affect the actions).  Wandering monsters are all skipable as they are visible on the field and can be avoided, but if combat is chosen striking them first gives an advantage.  There is also a great horse mechanic (horses area available from the start) that allows the horse to ram monsters as you ride.  This gets rid of monsters (within a certain level of you) but nets no experience.

The combat is aided by skills and abilities unlocked via a grid system.  This system allows each character to choose what skills to prioritize as they progress in levels.  This customization has some shared and unique traits between all the characters.  The main character has some additional choices unique to him to explore.  This customization will enable some great variety in the combat as specific roles are selected.

The main quest is fairly linear from what I saw at the demo, but the world has an open structure and there are literally dozens of sidequests to keep the adventure dynamic.  The themes of the story are far more mature than previous entries, but I noticed some specific Dragon Quest humor sprinkled through the narrative.  What interested me right away was the depth of voice acting in the game which is greatly expanded from the Japanese release - which had mostly text dialogue.

Other additions to the North American release are a very welcome dash function for quicker overland movement, enhanced menus and UI as well as a new harder Draconian mode.  The dash is something I could instantly see as a huge advantage and the improved UI adds a much higher quality experience to the entire system and experience.  Overall the game is truly stunning as well with amazing visuals, especially the open spaces and landscapes.

I have to confess I have only peripherally dabbled in the Dragon Quest games in the past due to the kooky and often kid like nature of the characters and themes.  From what I saw in the extended demo at PAX East this game really tries to break the mold and get more of a mainstream North American audience interested.

There are still some concerns in my head - such as some annoying characters and some legacy gameplay that may get repetitive - but I am keen to see more before I make final judgement.  Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is coming out with a very rare simultaneous release on PC and PS4 on September 4th.
One of my favorite games of the last long while is Motion Twins Dead Cells - a Metroidvania Roguelike that is just so damn fun. It is challenging, engaging, beautiful and always surprising.

I have done playthroughs before, but was inspired to do another one even though my run in this session is not super effective.  Enjoy!

I was sure I was being followed, there was no doubt I saw that man before as I navigated the halls of PAX East. I took a couple of quick turns and sure enough his face appeared behind me in the crowd.  He was not terribly distinctive and in any other moment could have been just any other fan at the Expo but I knew he had made me.  My time in this city might be over, but I had one last mission to accomplish.

Sneaking through the crowded stalls of the Indie Mega Booth I manage to lose my tail, just in time as the Good Shepherd booth was straight ahead and my contact was there to help me figure out what was going on.  Why were people following me?  Could they know I had a top secret meeting planned with CreativeForge to dig into their technology and blueprints? Or did they want to capture an recruit me?  Either way I needed answers and this was where I would find them.

Sneaking through the chain fences enclosing the booth I managed to meet my contact and sat with him in his secluded office to find out just what Phantom Doctrine is.  I am not sure what I was expecting, but what the mad geniuses at CreativeForge were able to show me let me know that Phantom Doctrine is something special and needs to be explored much more deeply.

Something about the game Phantom Doctrine really inspired me to imagine myself as a secret agent, one who has to look over their shoulder and plan every step and encounter.  The game is set in 1983 during the Cold War, and is an alternate history thriller in which players lead a secret organization dedicated to fighting a global conspiracy.  Throughout secret missions, classified files investigations and enemy agent interrogations, layers and layers of a sinister plot are revealed in an attempt to save the world from a somber future.

In speaking to the developer and while trying the game myself I was stunned by the options and complexity offered in Phantom Doctrine.  I was leading a newly formed agency of outcasts and defectors while trying to stop enemy actions and movements.  This involved responding to threats as they appear on the world map (some of which are false positives), sending out investigation teams to learn more about the enemy and deciphering clues via classified files.  All of this happens in a series of slick views and menus that really made me feel like the head of an agency.

In one really cool sequence I was trying to decipher the identity of an enemy agent based on files I had unlocked.  These sequence brought up an evidence board and I was able to tie together clues and known facts on the board which identified a couple of key agents.  I was then able to track these tagged agents and while they clued into the tail fairly quickly and triggered a new identity process I still had 12 hours to keep tabs on them before they disappeared again.  This intelligence could lead to their capture or help me have advantages in future missions, either way any information is valuable.

I was then brought to a sequence where a captured prisoner was being interrogated, which had many options available. I could simply interrogate and get as much information as possible or I could brainwash the agent and release them.  Depending on my skill I could take full control and have a double agent, or have a trigger word be available to be used once to turn the tides in a mission.  In this case I was able to brainwash and add a trigger word which would allow me to use the agent for one mission if she was at the mission site.

Next I was selecting an actual deployment mission, because of some of the prep work we undertook earlier in my demo I was able to recon the site.  This let me set a couple of external assets (one as a sniper, the other with a grenade launcher) as well as place two agents in disguise within the complex.  I went to another screen to equip my remaining agents, looked at the recon data and then started the mission.  In this case I was tasked to capture an information broker who might be betraying my organization.

Once the mission started it was setup much like X-Com, my agents deployed where I wanted them with options to position the disguised agents inside.  With the help of my guide I slowly took out exterior guards and key patrols inside quietly before starting the gunfight in earnest.  There are many options in game from stealth entries and takedowns to wholesale assaults on entry ways which dynamically changes the responses of the AI enemies.  I was told as well that if I turn off cameras or take out patrols new patrols may be sent and cameras turned back on so attention is always needed.

In the end I was able to complete my mission, but not without losses and like other games of this type there are consequences to my actions.  The dead agents are gone, ones left behind and not extracted may be captured and brainwashed, the spy world in Phantom Doctrine keeps flowing.  The game was deep, complex and instantly addicting.

The developer told me that the main story scenarios are hand crafted and have a compelling deep narrative focus, but there are dozens of side missions that are more procedurally crafted.  I was also told that whenever action takes place in a foreign city all spoken dialogue is in the language from the region adding an immersiveness rarely seen in games.  The team also spend months researching cold war facts to extract some of the most fantastic spy drama from real world events.  Much of the game is manipulated facts to portray an original story.

In the end literally everything about Phantom Doctrine impressed me.  The game looks amazing, has some of the best user Interfaces and sub screens I have seen in a game of this genre and the sheer scope of the game is impressive as hell.  The final product promises to be a spy simulator that is both engaging and addicting as we build a spy organization to counter threats from all over the world.  Phantom Doctrine will be out later this year for PC and I cannot wait to dig into this game and create my own cold war spy empire to counter the evil of the world.
One of the better Virtual Reality games in recent years was Wilson's Heart from Twisted Pixel.  It was an immersive terrific experience from a developer that was previously only known for 2D action games. This year they will be releasing a new game for the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Platform called Defector. I had a chance to check out the game at an Oculus Game Day event at PAX East and I can say the game is fantastic.

Defector is an incredibly immersive VR experience that put me in the role of a smooth talking, fast shooting secret agent in an incredibly realized world.  The demo I played did everything possible to make me feel like Jason Bourne or James Bond in an incredibly effective way.  Even the first moments of the game where the orientation of hardware happens was immersive. In the intro sequence I had to grab and install an earpiece and contact lens which established my comms for the mission.

Once I was outfitted I started the mission which involved infiltrating a flying headquarters to get key information from a slick power broker.  First I had to casually pass all of his henchmen without attracting too much attention.  This was more difficult than you would think because the world is so damn realistic and amazingly represented.  I found myself stopping and looking at the world far to often, with a number of henchmen giving me some dirty looks.

Eventually I got in to meet the big boss, thanks to some questions I had to quickly answer with the help of my back home support speaking in my ear. Once in his inner sanctum I sat down and played a battle of wits with the creepily represented bad guy.  There were a few surprises along the way as well as a double cross in my favor that was truly thrilling to experience.

After this the rest of the demo was all action which was some of the coolest VR I have ever experienced.  The game has MANY branches and I chose to have my partner bring the bad guy down off the plane with the remaining parachute.  This left me to find another way off the plane so I set off down the crowded corridors and learned how to shoot my way out of danger with a great tutorial.

Shooting was incredibly satisfying thanks to the Oculus touch controls, I gripped the gun, aim and shot as intuitively as can be.  When I needed to reload a quick button press ejected the clip and I actually had to grab a clip from my side and load it in the gun.  It is very hard to describe in writing but the action is so visceral and satisfying it enhanced the overall experience in a great way.

Following some gunfights I was also trained on hand to hand fighting which was also incredibly realistic, enough so it could be it's own separate game.  I learned through a tutorial how to fight, and it is real swinging and blocking and then fought a thug once my gun jammed.  The fight was tense and thrilling and during it unfortunately my demo glitched but I was left incredibly satisfied.

I was told by the developer that the rest of the demo was equally thrilling with an escape on the outside of the plane and a dramatic escape using a car from the hangar.  All in all the experience top to bottom was amazing and really put me in the mindset of a suave secret agent.  I was really not expecting this immersive of an experience and was impressed with what I saw.

I spoke to one of the developers at Twisted Pixel and they are introducing motion capture into this game which is a first for them and they are upping their animator and artist pool.  This will enable them to create an experience that is deeper and more varied than they have ever done before and based on what I played they succeeded.

Defector was one of the best things I saw at PAX East and was a blast to play through on the Oculus Rift.  This will be exclusive to the Oculus platform when it is released later this year and I cannot wait to see what the final game looks like.  If the demo is anything to judge by this will be one of the best and most immersive VR games to date.
It is always nice to see how a promising game like Dauntless progresses over time.  I checked it out at last years show and was not blown away but a year's of growth and iteration has made this a much improved experience.

In speaking to the developer, Phoenix Labs, Dauntless is a game where players will enter the science-fantasy universe of the Shattered Isles. They then take up the mantle of the Slayers, brave warriors tasked with ensuring humanity’s survival from the Behemoths, ferocious beasts, hungry to drain the very essence from the world. Slayers will join up with other players and take down Behemoths together, bringing their spoils to the main city hub to craft new weapons and armor.

This is a game that is all about exploration and encounters with the Behemoths.  As the game progresses the Slayers will get new items, armor and weapons to battle future larger Behemoths as they are revealed.  The gameplay itself takes place in a third person view with your character being picked at the beginning and equipped with specific devastating weapon types.  To switch up the gameplay there are also a number of equippable limited use items players can leverage.

I had a chance to play a round with some other players at PAX East and had a blast.  I picked a character with a very cool looking Pike and was dropped into the map with the other players.  The first task is to find the Behemoth (which we chose as the Shrike at the start of the round) and then engage it.  One of the players found the creature and sent up a Flare to signal the team. Once the creature is located the battle can start.

This is a four player co-op experience and when the battle starts each of the players leverage their skills and abilities to take down the creature and support each other.  Our team had to constantly work together distracting the Shrike, healing each other and dealing damage.  It is easy to just try to keep landing strikes, but careful consideration of health and buffs is required to be successful.In the end we took down the Shrike in good time with all team members contributing in great ways.  

The look and feel of Dauntless has come a long way since last year and it was faster and much more visually appealing.  The characters have a new weight to their actions which helps make the action feel more visceral.  The designs of the creatures, characters and world are also very distinctive and add greatly to the experience.

It was great meeting with the team at PAX East, they had a great booth that was at capacity for the length of the 4 day show.  They also shared some great news that the Open Beta for Dauntless has finally been announced and will be live May 24th.  They have been in Closed Beta for some time with over 100,000 players trying out the title, but another 700,ooo have applied for the upcoming Open Beta.

Once more people have access to the game Phoenix Labs will be able to show off their vision of the game.  The Dauntless Open Beta will be available as a free-to-play experience with an in-game store supported by a variety of cosmetic and vanity items. Phoenix Labs assured me that there are no paywalls or pay to win mechanics in the Dauntless experience, and there will be no form of purchasable loot boxes.

Dauntless was a lot of fun to experience with others and the Open Beta finally launching on May 24th will be a great boost to the in game population.  The title oozes with personality and the last year of growth has gone a long way towards making me excited to experience more of this game as soon as possible.
PAX East has become the place to find a huge gathering of Independent smaller games thanks to areas like the Indie Mega Booth and PAX Rising. There are also tons of hidden gems scattered through the show floor that really standout from the crowd. I try to check out as many of the smaller titles as possible to see what is coming from these talented developers in the coming months.

Antigraviator

As a huge Wipeout fan from the early PS1 days I was very curious to check out Antigraviator from Indie studio Cybernetic Walrus at PAX East. When I had a chance to see the game and play it I was very impressed with what the team has done with the Unity engine on this game.

The game is striking visually with bright vibrant colors and detailed tracks, but what was truly impressive was the raw speed of the game even when 4 player split screen matches were happening. The action is blazing fast and the mechanics while incredibly similar to Wipeout have some neat tweaks that set it apart.

One of the big differences is the trap system, there are traps scattered across the tracks and as your Grav (what they call the ships in the game) collects yellow tokens you unlock the ability to either trigger the trap or use it as a boost. The traps are sometimes stationary, other times aims at enemies behind or in front of you. This adds a layer of strategy that took some getting used to but was very interesting to attempt.

Gravs are customizable, but deciding on one upgrade may mean compromising on another. You can strategically tailor-make Gravs to gain the upper hand in races. In addition to the customization options, unlockable skins will be available free of charge according to the developer. So far the economy has not been locked down but the developer will not make this a pay to win game. All changes have a compromise attached that levels the playing field.

Antigraviator has been incredibly well received and has one many Unity awards for its design and tech usage. The game will be available later this year and is already available for pre-order on Steam, Xbox One and PS4.

Insane Robots

Insane Robots from Playniac a UK based developer. This is a card based action game – but according to the developer it is card battling hacked to be more friendly and inclusive. According to Playniac the most frustrating aspects of Card Battle games are deck building and constant expensive card expansions. In Insane Robots they got rid of these elements and made a game that is streamlined but still complex enough to be interesting.
Another interesting title I checked out was a very cute game called

At the core of the game is the fixed 22 token deck that is slowly revealed as the single player campaign progresses (or all at once in multiplayer). These tokens range from attacks and defense to special actions like powerups and swap abilities. On top of these card variances as you progress and level up your robots augments can be found or
bought and equipped to change how you interact with the map and enemies.

Each level is composed of one or more arenas and when battling other robots through each arena there is a rogue-like aspect to the design. If you fail and die in an arena your progress from the start of the arena resets. All items and augments you had up to that point are still there but any new items and money would be lost and have to be recovered. As the arenas are all procedurally generated care should be taken as the same items may not appear again.

Insane Robots has a great deal of personality and all the unlockable robots all have their own designs and personalities. Some may be obsessed with cooking, others may be fanatic music fans. All of these traits come out in the story and battle modes as they communicate and interact with each other. What I saw of this game was incredibly interesting as well as just plain fun. Insane Robots will be released later this year on PC, Xbox One and PS4.
PAX East has become the place to find a huge gathering of Independent smaller games thanks to areas like the Indie Mega Booth and PAX Rising.  There are also tons of hidden gems scattered through the show floor that really standout from the crowd.  I try to check out as many of the smaller titles as possible to see what is coming from these talented developers in the coming months.

Above


One of the first games I wanted to check out at PAX East was this charming little game called Above from Mighty Moth studios. What I saw in the trailer clicked a whole pile of my buttons and I wanted to see more as soon as possible.  This title is still a long way from release (early 2019 is the hope) but I really liked the framework I saw in place.

Above is an exploration/flying/adventure game with a deeper story than I expected.  The main character was ejected from her zealous community for daring to want to fly.  She decided to risk exile and take to the skies because her brother is missing so she embarks on a quest to save him.  Quickly in my short demo I saw that there is more to the game and world than it seems at first glance.

The core gamplay so far (I have been told there may be a lot of tweaking to the formula) has the pilot travelling around the map - with is a flooded landscape - looking for upgrades to her plane and clues about her brother.  On her adventures to rescue him she will travel across dimensions, meet many people and even monsters in the waterways.

I was instantly charmed by the look and feel of the game as well as the developers clear passion for the title which has been in development for a few years now.  They have received great feedback and are able to continue working on the game independently until it's release.  This is one game I am excited to keep checking out until it's release next year.

Tales From a Neon Sea

If there is one thing I love it is a good cyberpunk setting and Tales From a Neon Sea caught my attention right away with it's bright and vibrant look which echoed a pixelated Blade Runner.  In speaking to the team from a Chinese indie studio called Palm Pioneer that is exactly the look they are going for and they nailed it with the visuals on display.

The game is a film noir inspired point and click adventure game featuring a retired detective (in this demo his cat) who is brought back into a cold case when new evidence pops up.  The part I played was just a snippet of the introduction but was very interesting as I got a good feel of the tone and humor of the game.

The demo starts with the main character restoring some power to his apartment but ends with the local cat exploring and reaching the boss of his clan.  Dialogue was interesting as were the few puzzles on display, which were just challenging enough to give some pause but not too hard to be frustrating.  There will be much more to the game according to the developer but what I saw so far from the demo and trailer I am definitely intrigued.

One of the best pieces of news from the team at PAX East is that the game is nearly complete and will be available on Steam late summer which is a very quick window between reveal and launch.  It is a great looking game with a terrific art-style, fun gameplay and a surprisingly funny narrative experience.
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