For three days in the middle of March 2015, Tobacco Dock in east London played host to a games industry expo a step left from the mainstream. EGX Rezzed is an indie developer-focused celebration of creativity, attracting the big guns of PlayStation and Xbox (the biggest queue is for Bloodborne) but putting them on a level playing field beside a cornucopia of compellingly different digital experiences.
At no point did any of the exhibiting parties impose themselves on punters in a salesman-chasing-commission capacity – games were there to play, to observe, to discuss with the people who actually made them, and the atmosphere was a really welcoming, friendly one. A guy was walking around dressed as a Ghostbuster. School kids drifted in after 3pm to play graphic shooting games beyond their parents' gaze. Most things I played reinforced the fact that I suck at video games. What's not to like.
The event showcased the good people, those who pour everything into their efforts to change how we appreciate video games – maybe just for a five-minute session, turning a frown upside down with a title that has participants laughing themselves hoarse; or maybe for the foreseeable future, by producing something never seen before.
These are just some of the games that stood out.
Acid Nerve's forthcoming boss-battler began as a games jam project but will become a full release next month, and of all the titles I saw at Rezzed it's Titan Souls that perhaps I'm most psyched to get hands-on with again. Recalling the top-down-perspective RPGs of the 16bit era – Zelda, Pokémon, Shining Force – but with a paler palette, the game looks like a throwback. But it plays as a very modern menace, combining the difficulty of Dark Souls with the nothing-but-behemoths enemy design of Shadow of the Colossus.
Your character has a single hit point – one touch, he's dead. Yet all the bosses are beatable with just a blow, too, assuming it strikes a well-protected sweet spot. Your only weapon is an arrow, which you can retrieve by limited-range telepathy or by simply walking over. It's hard. Damned hard. I died, and died, and died a third time before having a quick word with programmer Mark Forster.
"It makes everyone look shit at video games, at the start," he says of his creation, made alongside two others, artist Andrew Gleeson and composer David Fenn. "But you get better. We never set out to make grown men cry, but we've balanced the game to represent a challenge to us. We just like hard games, and we're fans of Dark Souls, as you can tell by the title. We want people to feel good about overcoming the challenge of the game, and we've polished that as much as possible and made the entire game about that experience. Every fight is tense, as you always feel as if it could swing either way."
Titan Souls is one of the more press-previewed games on show at Rezzed – from initial screens onwards it has successfully courted the attention of gamers that grew up through the late 1980s and early 1990s, when role-players were made up of bundles of sprites that you fell in love with. Back then, developers didn't care so much that you saw the story out – they were more concerned with placing incredible obstacles along your path. Here, some of the bosses gloop, covering the screen in slime; others pound magical fists, attempting to crush the life out of you; others roll wildly around their arenas, aggressively pursuing their quarry – you. None is quite like the next, and all will end you before you do them.
"The actual concept of there just being boss fights is quite cool, I think. I found it weird, when we were making the jam game, that so few people had done this before. I was really intrigued, too, by the one-hit thing. You don't chip away at an enemy's health like in Dark Souls.
"In terms of the art style, I don't think anyone is making games that look like this purely from a nostalgia standpoint. Resources is more of a factor, and we're a small team. Our artist, Andrew, is a pixel artist, that's what he does, and that's his style. His colour sense is really good – we have really saturated colours, and the whole thing looks almost cell-shaded, I think. It does remind me of Wind Waker, and the SNES Zelda, in terms of aesthetic."
Titan Souls is released for Mac, PC, PlayStation 4 and Vita on the 14th of April.
There was plenty of virtual reality on show at Rezzed, including Taphobos, an "interactive coffin experience", which gave me the willies just looking at it. Less claustrophobic, not to mention morbid, and a million miles per hour faster, was Tammeka Games' Radial-G, a game I'd played before in a previous build but here added extra gameplay elements: a boost to aid the overtaking of rival racers, and numerous jumps which, if approached from the wrong trajectory, will send you into the abyss that surrounds the game's cylindrical track.
If you ever wished you could be inside the cockpit of a Wipeout vessel, this is that game. Such is its speed, though, that it's easy to imagine the hardiest of adrenaline junkies spewing forth their power lunch after a ten-minute session. The game's in Early Access on Steam right now, if you want to put that theory to the test. It's not exclusively for VR-users, as the video below shows: you can play third-person, like the Wipeout of old.
This was found in Team 17's space, quietly placed beside the stylised blood and bullets of LA Cops and the "sadistic circus extravaganza" of Penarium. And, conceptually, it's certainly one of the more alluring indie games that 2015 has to offer. You play, from the third-person perspective, as 10-year-old girl Rae, searching for a missing cat. The world around you only reveals itself slowly, though, as Rae cannot see the grass, the fences, the trees and bridges before her. She's blind, and these features only appear when smelled, touched or heard.
The work of one woman initially, Sherida Halatoe under the name Tiger & Squid, Beyond Eyes looks delightful. Its art style is appealingly painterly, and you just know it's going to stir up the feels in you when it releases for PC and Xbox One later this year. Expect the end product to be fleeting but beautifully formed.
Puns can make or break a game, but in the case of Laughing Jackal's "squirt 'em up", the cheesiness fits the Cbeebies-friendly art style, even if it also suggests a rather easier time that what's actually presented. This isometric action-puzzler pits a fireman – you – against the clock and plenty of that suit-singeing stuff. Save workers from the smoke and flames and you earn extra time, earning coins as you go to, presumably, upgrade your character with. (I'd love to say more, but I didn't last more than three minutes.) Its roguelike structure means no playthrough is quite like the last as levels are randomly generated, and it's a game you can play yourself right now, as it came out for PS Vita on the 10th of March. (PC and PS4 versions are forthcoming, too.)
A LIGHT IN CHORUS
"The prettiest game you've never heard of," is how Eurogamer described this distinctive exploration title in 2014. At Rezzed, the two-man-team's immersive affair was a star attraction of the Leftfield Collection space. The aim is to eliminate lights, and the everything's-a-particle build of the visuals means that colour plays a massive part in navigation. It's not supposed to challenge the player too much, with maker Eliott Johnson saying it's about "being in a relaxing, meditative environment". It's a long way off completion with a release date of 2016 all we've got to go on, but if the gameplay of A Light In Chorus is as attractive as its looks, it'll be an indie essential.
THE LAST NIGHT
Another game being built up from a jam project – which you can play here – The Last Night flicks all of my I-bloody-loved-Flashback switches. The was nothing to play of the game at Rezzed, but the look and sound of what was shown on video couldn't fail to connect with Delphine aficionados of old. The makers, Oddtales, promise "a two-dimensional cyberpunk open world," with plenty of emergent elements and a gripping story. A Kickstarter is set to commence soon, with planned platforms being PC, Mac and PS4. Definitely one that I'll be keeping an eager beady on.
NOT A HERO
At the 2015 BAFTA Games Awards, the side-on skateboarder OlliOlli won in the category of best sports title. It's the work of tiny Deptford-based studio Roll7, who've done the right thing and stuck a sequel out – it's available now. But what comes next for the team is something rather different.
Not a Hero is a hyper-violent, super-fast pixel-art cover-shooter that plays a bit like Hotline Miami meets the old arcade version of RoboCop. There's a criminal underworld to deal with, and only one man to run the offensive against it – or, rather, a rabbit. You control one of nine assassin types, each given orders by "BunnyLord" – a time-travelling anthropomorphic animal who wants to run for mayor, obviously – to wipe out level after level of armed-to-the-teeth bad guys. There's blood. Lots and lots of blood. Delicious, pixelly blood.
"It started as a completely different game called Geoffrey Archer," Roll7's John Ribbins tells me after I've cleared out a couple of stages. "That might still exist, we'll see – we're spelling 'Geoffrey' differently, so we might be okay. So it started as that, about an archer, but then we put guns in. And then I played this old Blizzard game called Blackthorne, which had this 2D cover mechanic where the guy backed into the shadows. I thought: 'This is so sick!' And nobody's really done that since. So we went from there. I wanted it to be faster than Blackthorne, and have elements of a modern shooter, but in 2D."
Not a Hero is a gleefully gory twist on modern shooters, nostalgic only in the sense that it taps the past for a frenetic present. It's not quite finished yet, but Roll7 are aiming for release on the 7th of May for PC, with PS4 and Vita ports a possibility before the year is out.
All photos by Jake Lewis