Lonely Mountains: Downhill (2018 - PC)
Lonely Mountains: Downhill is a game about riding a bike downhill. Yes, Descenders is also about that. But if Descenders is like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater going high speed down a procedurally generated slope, Lonely Mountains is more like playing Paperboy where instead of angry neighbors and tiny hurricanes the only thing you have to worry about killing you is your hesitance to hit the brakes. I only got to try out one of Lonely Mountains' maps on the showfloor, but I was impressed by the way its pulled-back camera and low-poly style evoked the feeling of a calm alpine afternoon.
You're free to roll down the mountain however you like; sprinting down straightaways, attacking switchbacks with precision, picking your own path between trees and around steep cliffs. The third option was easily my favorite; it felt a bit like playing one of those motocross trials games but on a scenic mountainside instead of a weird tower of junked cars and stacked-up tires. The Descenders comparisons are inevitable, but plenty of games are about running around and jumping on stuff, right? We could do with a few more about riding bicycles. Connor Sheridan
Children of Morta (2018 - PC, PS4, Xbox One)
At any given time in Children of Morta, there are three layers of narrative happening at once. At the grandest level, you have the story of gods who've gone missing a corruption seeping from Mount Morta. One step below that are the stories intertwined with the areas you'll uncover - a land where villagers augment themselves with machinery, a village where no one has died for centuries but now must face mortality - that sort of thing. And at the most intimate level, you have the story of the Bergsons, the family of adventurers who have sworn themselves to protect and cleanse Morta of evil.
Basically, think of Children of Morta a bit like top-down dungeon crawler (with some seriously gorgeous art and catchy music) where all the characters come from the same family. For example, there's papa Bergson, who wields a sword and shield and is adept at protecting the other members of his family. You know, like a good dad. But then there's his headstrong daughter, a young fire mage; when it comes to combat, the youngest of the Bergson family is far more aggressive than her father, and the skills she can unlock reflect her personality.
Children of Morta not only looks great and seems to take place in a unique world, but it's one of the best recent examples I can think of where gameplay so strongly reinforces narrative - and that makes me excited. Sam Prell
Just Shapes & Beats (Summer 2018 - PC, Switch)
Just Shapes & Beats has been a fixture of the convention circuit for a while - if you haven't already played the minimal rhythm-and-dodging game yourself at some manner of exhibition, you can check out our write-up from way back at PAX East 2016. But this year's demonstration of the game yielded a fresh delight: Just Shapes & Beats on Nintendo Switch. If the game hadn't been announced years before Switch was, you might've thought it was built specifically for Nintendo's new console.
Just Shapes & Beats only has two controls: move and dash. In other words, it's perfect for two-player co-op with a single Switch (you can add in extra controllers for even more players if you want). And you'll welcome the company, since each additional player improves your chances of making it through the demanding songs/stages. Even if after it finally comes out, Just Beats & Shapes may still be a common sight at conventions - not on big booth screens, but on the little Switch displays of various cooperating convention goers. Connor Sheridan
Pool Panic (TBD - PC, Switch)
Billed as "the world's least realistic pool simulator game," Pool Panic really only keeps things simple and actually kind of pool-like for the first... oh, two levels? At least that was the case in my demo. After that, it was a matter of using the heroic cue ball to do things like trying to herd grizzly bears (who were, like my character, anthropomorphized pool balls) or trick a band of marching balls into marching straight toward a pocket, or so on.
There's a great sense of discovery in Pool Panic's levels, since none of them tell you the objective and instead trust you're smart enough to figure it out yourself. Meanwhile, the extra challenges (like trying to clear the map in as few strokes as possible, beating it within a certain time, etc) add significant replay value. So for example, in one level an 8-ball is operating a crane. You can't get to him normally, so you have to whittle down his machine until he pops out.
But really, the fact is I just like seeing all the ridiculous and hilarious situations these pool balls find themselves in. The art is evocative and irreverent, and so are the levels. Of course, it's published by Adult Swim which... okay yeah, that answers a few questions. Sam Prell
I Hate Running Backwards (First half 2018 - PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch)
The developers of I Hate Running Backwards call it a shoot-em-down, because it's like a shoot-em-up where enemies always come up from the bottom of the screen. But it makes many more smart design tweaks to the usual shmup routine beyond just flipping your perspective. It's by no means a bullet hell, for instance; rather than performing acrobatic feats to stay just shy of screenfulls of one-hit-kill projectiles, you're chased by a bunch of dumb monsters who mostly want to get up close and chomp off a third of your health. You don't mind, though, because you've got a big ol' sledgehammer you can use like a panic button to smash through everything nearby.
With its procedural, run-based stages and surprisingly broad selection of cameo characters to choose from (you could play as a Bullet Kin from Enter the Gungeon, or that guy with the chicken mask from Hotline Miami, to name a few), I Hate Running Backwards feels like the accessible, party-friendly cousin of hardcore shoot-em-ups I never knew I wanted. Connor Sheridan
The Endless Mission (2018 - PC)
The fantasy of game development is far different from the reality. Where we often imagine colorful, exciting worlds being populated by 80% complete avatars and enemies, there is instead piles and piles of code and buggy animations. And most crushingly to our naive inner children, there is no such position within a studio as "Idea Guy". Except, of course, you're talking about game development in The Endless Mission.
Part sandbox experience, part game-building toolkit, The Endless Mission expands on ideas present in games like the LittleBigPlanet series and Project Spark to give players a grasp on the world of game development. Not a particularly firm grasp, mind you - you don't have to know computer programming and The Endless Mission isn't exactly built to teach it - but you'll be able to manipulate avatars, rulesets, and environments the way you might've imagined games were built before you learned about the (sometimes tedious) reality.
Example? By simply pressing the pause button during a simple 3D platforming game level, I was able to navigate to a menu that let me scale my character's size, dimensions, jump height, abilities, running speed, and a ton more, all via simple and easy-to-understand sliders and numbers. Once I beat the level, I could remix the assets into an RTS or racing game, among other genres. Here's hoping The Endless Mission leads to an explosion of inspired, creative ideas. Sam Prell
CrossCode (2018 - PC, then PS4 and more)
The two reasons I stopped to check out CrossCode on the expo floor were A) the big art of the protagonist on the back of the booth had a determined anime lady with a cool facial scar, and B) the game looked like an SNES action RPG with an extra layer of twin-stick shooting. Reader, I was not disappointed in either respect.
I think the best comparison I could make is this: you know how Stardew Valley makes you feel like you're back in the old days playing Harvest Moon on SNES, but then you go back and play Harvest Moon on SNES and immediately appreciate all the smart little bits of modern game design you're missing? CrossCode does that for Secret of Mana/Illusion of Gaia/Terranigma. Oh, and the booth art bore out too - yes, the game is rendered in retro pixels, but they're *good* retro pixels (and all the dialogue portraits are surprisingly expressive). Connor Sheridan
Semblance (2018 - PC, Switch)
In Semblance, you are dirt. I don't mean that in a cruel or demeaning way, mind you; you literally play as dirt in this game, brought to life in order to cleanse a crystalline infection that seems to be spreading throughout the world.
Jokingly referred to as "the world's first true platformer," Semblance is a game about... well, platforms. But unlike other 2D sidescrollers where your avatar will hop from one stationary spot to the next, Semblance is all about transforming the world around you to suit your needs.
See that objective up there? You can't reach it as the world is now. But if you were to, say, go underneath the nearby platform and smack yourself into it, denting and deforming it upward, you could climb higher and reach the objective. Got some deadly lasers blocking your path? Dent the terrain nearby to cause their alignment to shift, or block the beam entirely.
Semblance's puzzles are about breaking your assumptions over how a platformer should work. It's a clever deconstruction of the genre and I'm excited for the full release. Sam Prell
Sushi Strikers (June 8, 2018 - Switch, 3DS)
In a world without fish, the struggle for sushi is fierce and neverending. Fortunately, Sushi Striker: Way of Sushido isn't a harrowing simulation of how global climate change is destroying the world's fish population - it's a fast-paced competitive puzzle game about eating conveyor belt sushi (all summoned by magical sprites because of the whole "no fish" thing) then throwing the plates at your opponent to knock them out. Because that's a perfectly reasonable way to solve disputes when you live in a video game.
When I first saw Sushi Striker in a Nintendo Direct presentation, it didn't really grab me. But once I got into the rhythm of matching up same-colored plates, then unleashing them at the optimal time for maximum destruction (combined with special abilities from the aforementioned sushi sprites), I had a surprisingly good time. The premise - complete with lovely cartoon cutscenes - is ridiculous of course, but it was still relatable enough to give me a mean hankering for some maki rolls at 10 o'clock in the morning. Connor Sheridan
Who hasn't wanted to be James Bond? Defector is the quintessential superspy experience, complete with guns, gadgets, melee brawls with meathead bodyguards and more, all within the world of VR. The demo I played had me put in a virtual earpiece and contact lens to communicate with my off-site handler, discreetly walk amongst heavily-armed henchmen, sit down for a chat with a suitably flamboyant villain, then fight my way through an airplane as it fell from the sky and drive out the cargo bay in a slick-looking sports car.
I also sipped pretend coffee, threw a pretend fork at my foe, and pretend headbutted the bad guy's guard. Only the last one worked the way I intended, but Defector moved at a fast enough pace that I didn't feel trapped in a boring, non-reactive sandbox. Plus, each level has multiple optional objectives (inspired by GoldenEye 007 on N64) if you're feeling up to the challenge.
There's definitely fine-tuning to be done (guns currently feel light and shaky, as in pretty much every VR game) but Defector manages to feel like it's been made by experienced hands. I look forward to seeing if it can sell the superspy fantasy beyond its fun, albeit brief, demo. Sam Prell
Chasm (Summer 2018 - PC, PS4, PS Vita)
You know how it feels the first time you enter the upside-down castle in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night? That mixture of surprise, delight, and maybe a teeeeensy bit of exhaustion when this big game suddenly - just when you thought you'd finished - became twice as grand? Even as it checks off all the usual Metroidvania prerequisites, that feeling is what sets Chasm apart. Every time you start a new campaign, a new map is procedurally generated just for you.
Not every time you die! This isn't Rogue Legacy (though there is an optional permadeath mode if you want it to be more like that). You can die as many times as it takes to fill out this fresh new grid of unknown room locations and hidden upgrades. Or if you prefer, you can punch in a set seed number at the start and explore the same layout as other players. The basic act of stabbing slimes deep down in a dank mineshaft and finding ability-expanding gear is nothing new. But a near-infinite supply of upside-down castles to map and plunder? That's pretty cool. Connor Sheridan