Featuring a line-up consisting of a number of playable triple-A titles, including the likes Battlezone and Tekken 7, and an extensive collection of retro systems and arcade machines, Play Expo is the North’s largest gaming convention, attracting thousands of attendees to Manchester’s EventCity every year.
Due to the fact that we at Power Up Gaming got our fill of upcoming blockbusters several weeks ago at EGX 2016 in Birmingham, it was Play Expo 2016’s indie showcase that provided our main source of anticipation heading into the show. While many of the titles on offer had also been a part of EGX’s Rezzed zone, it was nice to be able to spend time with the games – and their developers – in a more intimate, quieter environment.
Having played through a selection of promising upcoming British independent games on the show floor at EventCity, we’ve managed to narrow down our list to five of the best titles that were on offer at this year’s expo.
Developed by fledgling British indie studio Prospect Games, Unbox combines a classic 3D platformer single-player mode with the hilarity of local multiplayer games such as Mario Party and Crash Team Racing.
Prospect have managed to create a tongue-in-cheek title that brings players a great deal of satisfaction in seeing their customised cardboard boxes go at it hammer-and-tongs, especially in the game’s competitive multiplayer mode. By either racing each other to the finish line or firing missiles at each other in a death-match scenario, Unbox’s players must determine who’s destined for the shredder.
We had the opportunity to explore Unbox as both a single-player and multiplayer experience at Play Expo, with positive results. The game’s single-player campaign, and its colourful, vibrant levels, evoked memories of open-world platformers such as Spyro the Dragon and Jak and Daxter, while its multiplayer matches provided us with hilarity and frustration in equal measure.
Conceiving Unbox as part of an Unreal 4 game jam several years ago, the team at Prospect initially wanted to cater to a 25-35-year-old target audience; people who grew up playing 3D platformers and party games in the 1990s. With more and more children enjoying the game at conventions, however, it’s been shaped into a much more accessible, pick-up-and-play product suitable for the whole family.
Unbox is available on Steam now, and the team are considering a possible console release. For more on the game, you can check out the interview we conducted with Prospect managing director, Andrew Bennison.
Side-scrolling, retro-inspired action games have seen something of a resurgence in recent years, from the relatively straight-forward – but critically acclaimed – platforming of Shovel Knight to the bullet hell frenzy of Super Time Force.
At Play Expo 2016, we had the opportunity to get hands-on with Dragon Bros, a run-and-gun game that pays an unapologetic homage to 8-bit shooter classics such as Metal Slug and Contra. The title, developed by Liverpool-based independent outfit Space Lizard Studio, features a colourful 2D pixel-art aesthetic along with simple, accessible gameplay, and will feel instantly familiar to fans of the genre.
Although Dragon Bros is a treat for retro fans, it’s clear that Space Lizard have also tried to cater to a wide-ranging audience. Along with its cutesy visual style, younger gamers will likely feel more at home with Dragon Bros’ control scheme. Rather than relying on face buttons for both jumping and shooting, the game features an analogue-and-triggers control setup, that both classic and modern gamers can easily get to grips with.
The Mystery of Woolley Mountain
Developed by one-man studio James Lightfoot, The Mystery of Woolley Mountain is a point-and-click adventure title that owes a lot to classic titles including The Secret of Monkey Island, DiscWorld and Trap Door, while still managing to remain unique enough to stand out from the crowd.
Woolley Mountain features a charming cartoon aesthetic unlike anything we’ve seen in similar titles, and Lightfoot attributes its distinctive visual brand to his work as a professional animator. The game is set in a fantastical world where a group of quirky time-travelling scientists are trying to save the children of Woolley Mountain from a malevolent witch who has kidnapped them.
Featuring traditional point-and-click adventure gameplay, along with strong puzzle mechanics and more than a smattering of humour, The Mystery of Woolley Mountain was one of the surprising stand-out titles for us at Play Expo 2016.
After a successful Kickstarter and Greenlight campaign over the summer, the game is on track for an October 2017 release for PC and Mac.
Developed by Sumo Digital – a team better known for their work on triple-A titles such as LittleBigPlanet 3 and Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing – Snake Pass is a 3D physics-based platformer that requires players to think just like our reptilian friends.
While its colourful, stylised aesthetic is clearly inspired by the likes of Super Mario 64 and Spyro the Dragon, that’s about where any and all similarities end. Snake Pass has a delightfully original core gameplay mechanic, which requires players to realistically emulate the movement of a real snake in order to traverse the game’s levels and collect all of the items they have to offer.
Snake Pass features a realistic physics engine, whose juxtaposition with the game’s cartoon worlds is both curious and creative. Much like a real snake, when players attempt to traverse in a straight line, it’s almost impossible to move. Instead, you must make use of curvatures and momentum in order to gain speed and climb to greater heights, curling your snake’s body around and around various obstacles and structures to progress.
Having played through one of the game’s easier levels at EGX, we were given a sneak peek at a more challenging later stage at Play Expo. With conventional enemies being absent from the game, environmental hazards of increasing difficulty instead are your main foes, along with gravity. While the tutorial world featured a stable, solid floor, the level we played at Play Expo saw us trying to traverse a rotating wooden bridge, where failure to appropriately move like a serpent saw us plummet into the abyss below.
Snake Pass is aiming for a Q1 2017 release on PC and consoles.
Sublevel Zero (VR)
Sublevel Zero, an intriguing retro-styled roguelike set in outer space, first appeared on our radar upon its Steam launch late last year. Featuring six-degrees-of-freedom gameplay akin to classic space shooter Descent, the Sigtrap-developed title has gained an ‘extremely positive’ consensus of reviews on the Steam storefront since its initial release, and after our extended playthrough, it was easy to see why.
Set in a dystopic universe that is falling apart, Sublevel Zero sees players pilot a gunship, battling waves of enemies as they explore the title’s retro-inspired and chunky-looking zero-gravity environments. While its core gunplay is clearly inspired by the likes of the aforementioned Descent and 1998’s Forsaken, an extra level of depth has been added through looting and crafting systems.
At Play Expo 2016, the developers were showcasing the game’s recently added HTC Vive VR support. While this portion of the title is still in beta, it is plain to see that Sublevel Zero is a game that lends itself perfectly to virtual reality, with its existing first-person view and aiming being easily adapted to support the Vive’s head-tracking features.
We soon found ourselves getting immersed in the title’s procedurally generated world as enemies spawned in all directions around us, requiring us to make full use of the Vive’s head-tracking technology to take them all out. The 360-degree cockpit view is also especially impressive, doing away with the need for a conventional HUD that would otherwise break player engagement.
Did you attend Play Expo 2016 at Manchester’s EventCity? Which titles caught your attention the most? Let us know in the comments below, or hit us up on Twitter, @PowerUpGamingUK.