PAX East: How Devolver Digital Stole My Heart
Walking the aisles of the Boston Convention Center, taking in the insane amount of games on display at PAX East offered a bit of sensory overload. So many sounds, flashing screens and people populated the space vying for your attention, it was often hard to concentrate and focus in on what was in front of you. Still, there were plenty of games that managed to capture my attention, all for varying reasons. However, there was one thread connecting this handful of games to one another.
Devolver Digital has made a name for itself over the past few years publishing the likes of Serious Sam and Shadow Warrior, but is probably most notable recently for teaming with Dennaton Games for Hotline Miami and Vlambeer for Luftrausers. Those games are all great for various reasons, but it's not Devolver's past that has me excited; it's the incredibly varied upcoming slate of releases it showed off at PAX East. Devolver didn't have a 25-foot tall monster on display. There were no BMX bikers backflipping around to grab your attention. Instead, like many other developers and publishers in the confines of the Indie Mega Booth, Devolver let the games speak for themselves. And what a statement they made.
The centerpiece of Devolver's humble, but crowded, booth was Hotline Miami 2. Rightfully one of the most anticipated games of the year, the brief demo on display shows off plenty of the new retro wizardry awaiting players. There's no denying Dennaton's style, and the line to play was lengthy throughout the weekend. It may have been tough to enjoy the soundtrack with so many other audio cues vying for my ears, but Hotline's vibrant visuals kept my attention well enough on their own. At first glance, this sequel just seemed like more of the same, but after getting some hands-on time, there are some nice new twists (controlling two characters at once, dual-wielding) to shake the foundation. Obviously any kind of story cues are almost indecipherable in such a short time, but to say the demo got me excited for the full experience would be a great understatement of the ages.
All things being equal however, Hotline Miami 2 was outshined at the show by the rest of Devolver's line-up, including the similarly styled Not a Hero. Just revealed by OlliOlli developer Roll7, Not a Hero is a 2D side-scrolling cover shooter (with proprietary Iso-Slant technology). Using just a handful of keys, you can slide and shoot your way through multiple stories of buildings or secret bases. The three playable characters in the demo all offered a different style and have different abilities, but Jesus is the clear front-runner as the most bad-ass of all. While his sliding can't take enemies out, he does have some sweet machine pistols to make quick work of anyone in his path. That, and when he stands still, Jesus gyrates his hips to the mariachi music playing in his head. The stages are quick, the action is fast and bloody, but most importantly, it's so much fun. It's Elevator Action by the way of Robert Rodriguez and John Woo.
Micro-bursts of action and hyper-violence seemed to be a running theme at the Devolver booth. Nowhere was it more apparent than in BroForce, which wears its heart on the sleeve it rolled up so you could see the righteous tattoo of a panther eating a fire-breathing eagle carrying the American flag. If Contra was filled with all of the '80s and '90s action stars you could dream of (Rambo, Mr. T, MacGyver, Neo, Judge Dredd and more), and had the twitch platforming of Super Meat Boy, that would barely skim the surface of the bro-tastic awesomeness of BroForce. Up to four players can join in on the fun, and the stages provide a pretty nice range of varied enemies to keep you on your toes. Things explode. People die. POWs get rescued. All in a day's work for the mercenary brotherhood. Its short stages take about a minute to play each, and before long you realize you've been rocking and rolling for a dozen levels. It's highly addictive, and adding friends to the mix only serves to make the experience more exciting.
If Devolver had only brought its upcoming action games to PAX East, I still would probably have signed my wallet over to them without hesitation. However, there's a more introspective side complementing the brashness drawing attendees with regularity. Deconstructeam and Vagabond Dog both brought titles that questioned more than my digital dexterity, they tested my heart and conscience as well. Vagabond's Always Sometimes Monsters is anything but traditional, despite its visual trappings as an old-school JRPG.
In the sequence I played through, I acted as a Hispanic woman who had fallen in love with another female student (I named them Renee and Kate, respectively. I have a Batwoman problem, okay?). The story jumped some number of years into the future after the two first met, and the two had some kind of falling out. As Renee, I had to find a way to Kate's impending wedding. I was paid upfront to load some boxes into a truck. I could have left immediately. I could have loaded boxes forever. Instead, I loaded a few dozen, when I felt like I earned my pay. This is the kind of situation Vagabond Dog is presenting to players. What would you do? How far would you go? I don't know how the situation ended, but my decisions would have impacted interactions and the story further down the line. Living my life is hard enough, but when tasked with leading someone else's, how do you know what's right for them? I'm fascinated with the possibilities, and I'm more interested and invested in what might be happening to these few characters I'd only known for a few moments than another faceless man who acts out his emotions with an assault rifle.
Deconstructeam's Gods Will Be Watching is a beast of another kind entirely. Each day of PAX, the developers had a different scenario up for players to try and complete. I played through Torture, which tasked me with surviving an interrogation by some really messed up dudes for 20 days. I made it through six. The pixelated universe is perfect for the adventure game Deconstructeam is bringing to life. From its humble beginnings as a game jam experiment, Gods Will Be Watching has evolved into something more. Due this summer, the six scenarios are all tied together in some way, but all of them play dramatically differently.
Even the individual segments will offer different outcomes for different players. I tried my damndest to hold out from telling the whole truth, but my tactics of provocation and lying couldn't stop the Russian roulette wheel from spinning. I couldn't save my partner from the torture, so why did I think I'd make it out alive? The questions of what's right or wrong or best for the team stretch far beyond much of what we've seen in games with moral compasses before. Gods Will Be Watching challenges you to make harder decisions than you'll (hopefully) ever have to make in your life. Even in failure, it's exhilarating. Most games don't make my heart race or my palms sweat as much as they did experiencing Deconstructeam's story.
Pound-for-pound, there aren't many publishers putting out as many interesting games as Devolver Digital. More than anything though, each of the offerings brought just as much substance as they did style. Even Cosmic DJ, the bizarre but fun music-making iOS title nestled snugly between Roll7 and Dennaton, fit perfectly at the Devolver booth despite lacking explosions, bullets or blood. (It did have a headless dog though, so I guess that meets Devolver's f---ed up quotient.) Regardless, no other booth had me coming back to see what was happening, even when I wasn't playing, more than Devolver's. Yeah, Evolve looked cool. The next Borderlands sounds sweet. The games I wanted to take home immediately that day? They were all from Devolver.