Bullets whiz past my avatar as I select her next attack against the Russian mafioso. I settle on the same one as last turn: a hearty blast of ammo from my assault rifle. After unleashing her barrage, my spritely young anime-inspired protagonist returns to her respective side of the screen. All this happens over the backbeat-laden hip-hop-influenced soundtrack. I genuinely enjoyed my time with Orangeblood’s PAX West demo, which showed me a game developed in RPG Maker by a single person. I just wish I could give more context to this paragraph, because, beyond aesthetics, I have no idea what the hell the game was truly about.
That’s not to say Orangeblood has no story, or that it was confusing or a poor build. What I mean is that game demos for PAX West (and I’m assuming for conventions in general) are aggravatingly confusing. As a first-time PAX-goer, this was not something I expected headed into that exciting weekend. In the industry, we often hear whispers of fantastic demos on the showfloor, tales of mighty feats and breathtaking cinematics, and stories of momentous action sequences. We never hear of the story games that throw you into the middle of their lore-rich story with no background, of the visual novels that build upon their introductions without showing you the introductions, or cutscenes that rely on characters we simply don’t know.
Orangeblood is the perfect example of this. I know the game was a hip-hop and anime tag-team, and that I greatly enjoyed its style. I don’t know anything about the story, nor did I during the demo. The dialogue was hard to follow, the enemies referenced organizations and places I didn’t know, and the characters had a past that eluded me. The same went for quite a few games I saw this weekend; N1RV Ann-A, Obey Me, and even the fantastic Indivisible all left me a little in the dark by tossing me into the light too quickly.
Yet one seat to the right of Orangeblood’s demo was Outrider Mako. Built as a Zelda-like Spirited Away, you play as Mako, a human trapped in a world of Japanese spirits. You act as a courier, collecting and delivering packages to various spirits throughout the land, defeating enemies and solving puzzles along the way. That’s easily explained at the outset of the demo, and from there, no extra story is really piled on top. It’s all gameplay from there, and should I say, the gameplay is exquisite. “Zelda-like” isn’t the best description for a game that involves parkouring off the environment with satisfying hops, landing on the heads of enemies and covering them in pink paint to slow them. Everything about Mako just felt right. The animations were snappy, parkour and combat loops were engaging and intertwined, and the sound design made sure all of the above excited the auditory senses.
It’s in these types of demos that PAX West shines–those where gameplay matters above all, where story needn’t be concerned. It’s hard to write impressions over an amazing story you only know a fragment of, laid over top of a solid turn-based RPG. It’s much easier to gush about how well an action game felt under your thumbs, how you could feel the weight of a landing or the hefty swing of a claymore.
Other examples of experiences that demoed well are Shovel Knight Dig, which is pitched as “the Shovel Knight version of Downwell;” Creature in the Well, a top-down, sword-swinging adventure game that mixes the best of pinball and Hyper Light Drifter; Haven, a romantic visual novel turned action game that follows an otherworldly couple; and World of Horror, a Junji Ito-infused visual novel that let me start at the beginning of a standalone chapter and solve its secrets on my own.
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The other games at PAX West did not demo badly, but this was simply a confusing, unexpected twist to an otherwise fantastic showing. It’s a side to the industry I certainly didn’t anticipate or ever hear of, leaving me to wonder how many similar angles remain untold to those unfortunate enough to view large conventions in third-person. Either way, I look forward to hearing Orangeblood’s story the correct way: from the start, in order, told in full.