The best surprises at E3 come from smaller games, the makers of which rarely sacrifice their art, design and storytelling for the sake of commerce. While some of these will be distributed by bigger game publishers, the creativity is sometimes staggeringly proficient in its ingenuity — just as the artwork can be as touchingly moving as a fine museum painting. Here are the best under-the-radar games I found at the expo.
‘Lost Words: Beyond the Page’
E3’s sweetest and most charming game was written by generally well-regarded game scribe Rhianna Pratchett. Much different than her work on the “Tomb Raider” series, this story follows a young girl through the stages of grief as she writes her first piece of fiction set in the beautiful fantasy world of Estoria. You proceed forward as your character jumps on words from her diary, then moving more words, which open portals to her bucolic land of wonder. But it’s the tale that will make “Lost Words” memorable to players. In the first 15 minutes, you’ll choke up and shed a tear (in a good way). This is Pratchett’s finest writing to date.
‘Empire of Sin’
Lauded indie genius Brenda Romero teams up with Doom co-creator (and husband) John Romero for an intense strategy game based in Prohibition Era Chicago. It all starts when scar-faced Alfonse Capone arrives from Brooklyn to take over the Windy City. With its mix of real-life crime bosses and fictional baddies, this intelligently complex, unflinchingly brutal game asks you to create or take over breweries, brothels and casinos to become Chicago's top crime boss. Brenda Romero’s wanted to make this game, inspired by her bootlegger grandfather, for 20 years. So you know it’s being made with TLC. Another perk? The excellent Jazz Age music soundtrack.
Easy to learn, but maddeningly cerebrum-busting to master, HyperDot asks you to stay away from all incoming squares, triangles and abstract shapes. I survived 13.2 seconds — even after multiple tries. But I didn’t want to stop indulging. The coolest part: it’s also made for ADA folks: you can even play via eye-tracking in this ultra inclusive offering created by Charles McGregor.
‘The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan’
Supermassive Games, Bandai Namco
Somewhat like "Heavy Rain," this terror-inducing game unfolds like an interactive movie. Here, five too-attractive friends are on vacation aboard a boat in the South Pacific that's set upon by modern day pirates. With a gun aimed at one of your friends' heads, you can almost smell the fear as you try to sneak by to get to a lifeboat by pressing the correct controller button at the right time. It’s just one harrowing moment in an offering that lasts for five hours. I was so impressed at the tension Supermassive was able to impart. But I wondered, too, if the characters' personalities would degenerate into horror movie stereotypes.
‘Creature in the Well’
Flight School Studio
They call it a “pinbrawler." “Creature in the Well" is a fast-paced combination of pinball and hack 'n slash games. If you’re a fan of the silver ball, you’ve likely never seen a game with so many bumpers on a table, dozens of them. With art inspired by Mike Mignola’s "Hellboy" comics, you try to restore power to an ages-old facility while a giant monster with bony hands scares you from the shadows at various unexpected times. It's a strong mix of action-filled level design and story that may remind you a bit of SuperGiant's "Bastion."
Tim Schafer has made some wild games, but this follow-up to his 2005 classic is his most patently surreal. Not all of Schafer’s pun-filled humor hits its mark. But when a passel of tiny censor monsters yell “No!” and try to kill ardent young protagonist Raz (for Rasputin), you know you’re in the able hands of a master craftsman of language and animation. Schafer also knows his psychological foibles. Sometimes you feel as if you’re in a funhouse nightmare. Sometimes Raz, with his saucer eyes, brow-furrowed determination and aviator goggles, makes you feel like the ultimate hero in a world of mind-bending wackiness. It's all set in amazing world filled necromancy and with spies with psychic abilities.
‘Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout’
MediaTonic, Devolver Digital
Because it avoids guns and weapons all together, "Fall Guys" is a peaceful yet frantic riff on the Battle Royale trend. Here, you're in an "American Ninja"-style race for survival, but in a pastel-colored amusement park environment rife with devious obstacles. One portion, for instance, appears to be set in a giant pachinko machine. Best of all, the short-legged contestants, all 100 of them, look like the spawn of Weebles and jelly beans. Devolver Digital's been described as the SubPop Records of Games, so publishing MediaTonic's adorable tomfoolery was a slam dunk.
Tucked away in the IndieCade booth, I found a strangely gripping mash-up which combines a dungeon crawler with a dating simulation. In this gem from the Montreal-based game makers, you meet these anthropomorphic weapons. Not only are the weapons diverse, the characters which represent them are, too. One loves social justice and games, another hates ducks. But if you fall in love with your weapon, its strength is reduced. It’s all done with a smart, sly wink, like tag line: “The couple that slays together, stays together.”
‘Contra: Rogue Corps’
After a nearly 10-year hiatus, Contra has returned with an alluring Marvel-ish graphic novel style. Contra began as a 1987 arcade game, but this sleek, updated run-and-gun shooter takes some inspiration from today’s games (like Borderlands). So your weapon upgrades will be wacky and wide-ranging as will some characters (like Kaiser, a not-so-cuddly cyborg Panda). It’s gruesome, though, when you throw an alien into giant, spinning circular saws and witness the splashing explosions of blood. Sure, you have to kill him. He was going to kill you. As the screen fills with the flashy fireworks of cartoonish explosions, you realize it’s all over the top fun. And you want to play much more.
‘Werewolf The Apocalypse: Earthblood’
Cyanide, Big Ben
Vampires and zombies are too ubiquitous. But here come the werewolves. Based on a popular tabletop role playing game, you're the shapeshifting werewolf Cahal ("great warrior" in Irish, I was told). As a human, you're a tattooed soldier on a mission to stop humans from attacking the environment, from fracking, for instance. You deal with clans like the Black Furies, who fight for gender equality and the Bone Gnawers, whose goal it is to end poverty. But don't forget the brawl-filled action. And watch your Rage meter. Filling it helps you kill more enemies. But fill it fully and you're dead.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle and New York Game Awards. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.
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