15 quirky, fun indie PC games that blew us away at PAX

Some of the best and brightest indie gaming gems were on display at PAX 2015.

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Fan service

PAX has always been an important show for indie devs, but this year more than ever it felt like it was all about the indies. With few of the major publishers showing anything new after a smorgasbord of E3 and Gamescom news, it left room for smaller developers to shine.

With adventure games, factory simulators, Quake-style shooters, cooking games, and more on display, there was something for just about everyone at PAX Prime 2015. Here are a few of the games I had the most fun with on the show floor this year.

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Infinifactory

I was about fifteen seconds into my demo of Infinifactory when I thought, “This seems a lot like SpaceChem.” And then it took about fifteen more seconds for me to realize it was a lot like SpaceChem—because it’s made by the same team.

Infinifactory tasks you with building factories for aliens, and in many ways it’s “SpaceChem in 3D.” I loved what I played, and then felt like a jerk when I heard it already released back at the end of June and I somehow missed it.

Maybe you missed it too, in which case you should check it out.

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Kona

A snazzy noir-esque narrator. The snowy backwoods of Canada. A rusty old truck. Some matches. And a wendigo.

Kona has catapulted to the top of my most-anticipated list, now that I’ve finally gotten my hands on it. Taking place in the 1970s, you’re tasked with exploring an abandoned town to find out where everyone’s gone—and avoid being eaten by a wolf, while you’re at it. I’m a sucker for first-person adventure games, and Kona seems pretty ambitious.

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Through the Woods

Through the Woods taps into a very primal fear of mine—walking through the woods alone at night. Except in the case of the game, there actually is something behind me and it sounds like it’s breathing right down my damn neck.

The game puts you in control of a mother searching for her lost son—though he wasn’t “lost” as much as he was abducted by the mysterious Old Erik. It’s full of unlit trails and squalid caves and the occasional children’s toy. And it’s pretty damn scary, thanks to some excellent sound design.

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The Westport Independent

You'd be forgiven for mistaking The Westport Independent for Lucas Pope's Republia Times, which he made in a game jam before going on to make Papers, Please. They're pretty similar: You're in charge of a newspaper that's a thinly veiled arm of the despotic government, and must decide whether to print "truth" supporting the government or "truth" that incites a rebellion.

But with Lucas Pope seemingly content to leave Republia Times as a semi-finished Flash game, I guess I'm fine with seeing someone flesh the idea out to a full game.

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Kingdom

"My kingdom for a horse," yelled Richard III, and I bet he felt like a fool when he realized he'd been doing it wrong all along—the peasants want coins, not horses.

Kingdom is a roguelike-style game where your goal is to expand your kingdom and protect it from monsters. But you're lazy, so you just ride back and forth on your horse all day collecting taxes and then pay people to do the hard work for you. "Build a stockade." "Build a watchtower." "Build a place for people to sleep." "Chop down these trees."

It's good to be king, even if your kingdom is five people, a couple of tents, and a wooden fence.

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Death's Gambit

The whole “It’s Dark Souls, but…” thing is getting pretty stale at this point, but the “It’s Dark Souls, but side-scrolling” motif really works for Death’s Gambit—in part because it’s really faithful to Dark Souls. It controls the same, it has the same cryptic item descriptions and oversized boss battles, and it even does a pretty good job rendering down the Dark Souls art-style to 2D.

Also, I’m very bad at playing it.

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Desync

If you have a soft spot for Tron and Quake, I think you’ll find something to love in Desync, an ultra-hard shooter with outlandish weapons, a crazy neon aesthetic, and a focus on style over survival. Killing enemies in specific ways—like shoving them into a wall of spikes—rewards you with extra points, allowing you to climb the leaderboards on the backs of the dead.

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Katana Zero

Playing Katana Zero, I found myself falling into the same sort of rhythm-induced Zen violence I loved in the original Hotline Miami. Run upstairs, slash a guard with my sword, slow down time and deflect another guard's bullets back at him, grab a knife and throw it at the guy with the shotgun, hit the last guard with the sword again, and then head for the exit. The game flows.

Even more surprising? It was made in GameMaker, of all things.

Image via GameSpot

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Hob

For Runic Games, Hob seems like a pretty big risk—a departure from the Torchlight series of action-RPGs that made them famous and towards some sort of platform-lite, almost Bastion-esque game.

Luckily I think it’s a risk that’ll pay off. My fifteen minutes with Hob had me scrabbling across cliffs, swinging from magnetic grapple points, and wielding a sword at the occasional monster while the world gradually rearranged itself around me. It’s a refreshing change of pace from Runic before the inevitable Torchlight 3.

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Time Machine VR

While the Vive took center stage for me at PAX, I did see one intriguing demo on the Oculus: Time Machine VR. In it, humanity is afflicted with an unknown plague and you need to travel back in time and extract DNA from dinosaurs to find the cure.

The demo is a bit rough at times, but I love the blend of science fiction and paleontological education on display here—animals like the Plesiosaurus are accurately rendered in-game, letting you get up close and personal to long-extinct lifeforms.

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The Gallery: Six Elements

The Gallery: Six Elements has been in development for a while now—three years, to be exact. But the PAX demo eschewed the Oculus Rift for the latest HTC Vive/SteamVR iteration, and standing up/walking around felt like a natural fit for this adventure game.

During my brief demo I walked around a beach, translated some Morse code, and even shot fireworks and flare guns off. It's much like Myst, both in atmosphere and in its blend of different puzzle types. I'm pretty excited to see more of this one, hopefully close to the Vive's launch.

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Fantastic Contraption

Originally a Flash game, Fantastic Contraption—where you build machines out of simple objects to solve a problem—has now made its way to the Vive. It's probably my favorite demo, next to the 3D painting app Tilt Brush.

I played through two levels, eventually building a mini-tank six feet tall out of essentially pairs of wheel and a few cardboard tubes. This one's an amazing selling point for standing-up virtual reality.

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Battle Chef Brigade

Well, I didn’t think I’d come out of PAX 2015 with one of my favorite experiences being a cooking game, but here we are. Battle Chef Brigade is one part side-scrolling hack and slash, one part Iron Chef, and one part match-3 game. You play as Mina, a talented chef competing in a cooking show where you need to kill monsters and make food out of them before time runs out.

It’s addictive as hell.

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Shoot Shoot Mega Pack

The best local-multiplayer game at PAX 2015 is the deceptively minimalist Shoot Shoot Mega Pack. The instructions are pretty easy—kill every other player. But how you get there changes each round, with some requiring you to knock the competition into the walls, others allowing you to shoot miniature black holes, and others making it so players are only visible when they shoot.

Put this one on the party shelf alongside TowerFall, Duck Game, and Nidhogg.

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Layers of Fear

My favorite Oculus demo is “Sightline – The Chair,” a short experience where every time you look away from something it changes. Maybe you’re staring at a sandwich, but if you look away and look back it’s changed to a vase of flowers or a banana or what have you.

Now imagine that same concept except terrifying. Layers of Fear is a psychological horror game where you wander the rooms of a mansion to uncover secrets from your past—except every time you look away, the rooms and furniture rearrange themselves behind your back. It’s unnerving, to say the least.

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Credit: Hayden Dingman
Let's get physical!

That’s it for the games of PAX, but there were much more physical goodies on display in Seattle as well. Now that you’re done reading about the best software of PAX, check out our guide to the drool-worthy PC hardware from the show. This slick Fallout-themed mod is just the tip of the iceberg.