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5 indie games to watch from Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) 2014

The largest public video game convention in the United States is celebrating its 10th anniversary in Seattle. Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX Prime as it’s called by organizers and gamers, has grown exponentially over the past decade. Although the show has expanded to Boston (PAX East) and is heading to San Antonio in January (PAX South), Seattle remains the birthplace of this American gaming Mecca.

While big publishers like Microsoft (MSFT), Electronic Arts (EA), Ubisoft and 2K Games offer attendees the chance to get hands-on time with huge franchises like Forza Horizon 2, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Assassin’s Creed Unity and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel; independent studios get to showcase their offerings to an avid gaming audience at the show. In the spirit of celebrating the innovation that is blossoming in small garage-style start-ups, here are five indie games that are worth checking out.

Bierzerkers, Shield Break Studios, PC, 2015

Shield Break Studios, founded by veterans of Blizzard Entertainment, Riot Games, Activision and Certain Affinity, is working on a brand new team-based, multiplayer, melée-combat game set in the Viking afterlife. In Bierzerkers, players battle using a variety of unique classes with stylized Norse visuals, arcade-inspired melée combat, and intense online competition. Realism takes a back seat for the frenetic fun and irreverent style that the studio has employed using Unreal Engine 4 technology. Will Harris, lead designer of the game, said, “In Bierzerkers, you will crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their sheep.” The multiplayer game, which is still in development, has been tested with 2 vs. 2 players on smaller maps and as large as 16 vs. 16 on larger maps. The emphasis is definitely on over-the-top team-based combat set in a colorful and bloody interactive world.

Galak-Z: The Dimensional, 17-Bit, PC, PlayStation 4 and PS Vita, 2014

Skulls of the Shogun developer 17-Bit has combined its love of ‘80s arcade games and anime with Galak-Z: The Dimensional, a fun 2D space shooter for PC, Sony PlayStation 4 and PS Vita. With addictive, endless zero-gravity dogfighting, this original game has a retro feel and gameplay mechanics from ‘80s titles like Asteroids and Metroid. The game offers hand-crafted, missions for pilots to embark on through the galaxy. Players have the ability to explore the universe from time to time on their own. The challenge is in staying alive as gamers fight aliens, navigate asteroids and avoid abandoned spacecraft. The game offers a single life, which means you must start over if you die. Because the game is procedurally generated, every time players hit “Start,” the experience will be different. With three warring factions in the game –Imperials, space pirates and indigenous aliens – there’s plenty to keep gamer busy and coming back for more.

Interstellaria, Cold Rice Games, PC, Late 2014

Jonathan P. King turned to Kickstarter to fund the PC game he’s always dreamed of creating. The one-man operation behind Cold Rice Games has been inspired by titles like Mega Man, Starflight and Metroid. Interstellaria combines different gameplay styles as players navigate a crew through the galaxy. There’s a simulation component as you select and manage your ship. Assembling your crew is just the beginning, as each member is unique (a la The Sims) and will progress as you play through adventures. There’s a more platform action gameplay element on the planets that you explore, although even here the developer has mixed things up so each surface level will offer a variety of challenges including run-and-gun action and more Metroid-style puzzle-based obstacles. This indie open world game also comes packed with aliens, of both the friendly and enemy variants, to contend with, which introduces diplomacy, trading and all-out war to the gameplay.

Salt and Sanctuary, Ska Studios, PlayStation 4, PS Vita, 2015

The two-person team that formed Ska Studios, James and Michelle Silva, have already showed their indie cred over the past seven years with previous games like The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile and Charlie Murder. Now they’re bringing the 2D side-scrolling action of classic games like Castlevania and the depth of RPGs like Dark Souls to a brand new IP, Salt and Sanctuary. The game features intricate and brutal combat, lovingly hand-drawn and animated 2D art (of the non-pixel variety), a killer in-house soundtrack, and a massive roster of set-defining, dynamic and unique bosses. The game offers a lot of depth, including weapons like swords and crossbows that can be wielded one-handed, dual-handed for more power or combined for something like a sword and shield configuration. There’s plenty of maneuvering with the ability to perform air attacks with hang time, curb stomps and the option to roll away from enemies, but your loadout weight will impact your moves. There’s also magic to help you through the game world.

The Next Penelope: Race to Odysseus, Aurelien Regard, PC/Mac/Linux: late 2014, Consoles: early 2015

In the crowded racing space, The Next Penelope: Race to Odysseus truly stands out. This game, created by former Arkedo Studio co-founded Aurelien Regard as his first solo project, combines fast-paced racing action with strategy and boss battles for a very cool gameplay experience. Influenced by console classics like F-Zero, this top-down racer offers three game modes. In addition to the classic racing levels, players will enter solo events with challenges like finding a teleport in a labyrinth while being chased by a monster. And there are also all-out boss battles complete with weapons. Set in a futuristic Greece, the game’s story blends Greek mythology with the Ulysses 31 anime. Ulysses’ wife, Penelope, is the star of this racing story, as she traverses the universe in search of her husband. The game even offers player progression as they race through the action in any order.