Beats and Feets at PAX East 2023
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #162. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Wide but shallow.
PAX East 2020 was the last weekend before everything became more meticulous. Many want us to believe that we’ve returned to those days, even making the case in some places that masks are no longer necessary in medical buildings and spaces. Those people are wrong and should be called out as such, it’s truly mind-blowing that we haven’t worn masks in those places for decades already, let alone pretending that airborne transmission of all diseases at large has simply drifted away.
I am not the most diligent about wearing my mask, bowing to pressure and convenience when eating out or meeting with small groups. But grocery stores, hospitals, airports, trains, and PAX are all places where I will likely strap one on for the rest of my life. At PAX East 2023 it’s made easier through on-site requirements, but if actual hospitals are bending the knee to conservative talking heads on masks, not much else will be keeping up the struggle.
All this to say that wearing my mask at PAX East 2023 was easy, and probably went a long way towards not only peace of mind but caring for those more vulnerable folks in our community. And in every other way it did mostly feel the same as it ever did.
Dead Island 2
Guilty of confusing this with the parkour zombie game, and was initially quite perplexed at my slow gait. I combed the beach, picking up trash, usually dropped by the zombies I found. Was carrying like 15 weapons, each of which necessitating multiple swings or shots to bring anything down. Electricity and fire seemed to play vital roles though neither really moved the needle much. Eventually I made it to a Ferris wheel where the mobs were too much and I kept getting overwhelmed. I am probably playing this one wrong. Nothing felt revealed to me in this playthrough other than hammers are heavy and carnivals are dangerous. This is not the fault of Dead Island 2 itself, which has a real hot potato history of development. Seems to be more of the same, whether that’s Dead Island or “videogames” or just the commonplace metaphors for humanity’s self-destruction. Cool lights and zombie outfits though.
System Shock (Remake)
A PC classic being reforged. The original did not cross my path in the old days, but the name has come and gone from my orbit like a reliable comet. Time spent with the demo revealed the great wealth of decision space that both the original System Shock and this remake are attempting to provide. Given that this is an exercise in update as well as adherence to that original vision, it shows off the power of its influence while refusing to acknowledge the meaningful changes in play and presentation that’s followed. The demo held no hands, as I fluttered around the opening apartment truly unclear on what I was meant to click. Eventually I figured it out and as such was sent to cyber prison, given a job and an implant, and let loose in a mad lab. System Shock knows how to pluck those mournful nostalgic strings which is impressive given that I didn’t think I even knew the tune. But I suspect that if I want to dance with the eventual full release, I’m going to need a little more guidance than what the beat will provide.
This is a Devolver game, so it’s silly and colorful and a little loosey goosey. From a first-person perspective the player charges through a flophouse kicking doors and goons, eventually getting guns so they can kick and shoot, and then from there it’s really just DOOM with legs, Hotline Miami mixed with Battletoads on a steady beat build for speedrunning. Some physics fun like when you figure out you can kind of do a sweeping kick if you spin around with the leg out, and then when you realize you can kick junk at dudes and they just flop right on over. It’s a game called Anger Foot and that’s what it is.
This one’s really leaning on the watercolor-based art direction and with good reason: it’s stunning. Navigable but clearly crafted spaces swim and flow with a classic French storybook style that dips into Ghibli a bit to spin together a dual-timeline coming-of-age story. As I approach the peak of my life and stare downhill, I find myself less interested in these types of stories, so I’m not sure if it’s that angle or if the demo left me just cruising through the tropes of family mystery and dysfunction and unlocking old memories and mysteries. You’re little, then sometimes older, clicking on shiny spots, but then later doing some light creative interaction through scenes of poetry-writing and photography, all while resenting every adult around you, likely with good reason but the petulance is wearying. Probably wouldn’t go through Dordogne on my own but interested to see how others more locked into visual novels feel about this one when it’s done.
Aliens: Dark Descent
A real-time-ish isometric bug hunt featuring very responsive marines going through a beat-up station under constant assault from the titular xenomorphs. Tactically winding through endless hallways, looting for clues and supplies, making tough decisions on where to spend time and energy welding temporary safe/save rooms, just doing your job and avoiding acid splash-back. This one probably has more traction with those still pushing for Alien video-entertainment experiences, but my time with the demo did not allow for much of a learning curve. Once you lose a squad member they’re gone, so make sure you know how and when to use special abilities and make the most of your environment, and if you do know about these things, give me some hints.
Machi Koro 2
I cannot speak towards Machi Koro 1 and how this one may or may not build on that original entry. It’s one of those games I saw a lot on game store shelves and nestled in board came cafe libraries and that’s the extent of it. But a friend grabbed a copy of this sequel and we had a table and time so we buckled down and started pulling cards and rolling dice. An engine-builder but without a board, you and your neighbors are building little empires, rolling dice to earn coins or steal them from the other players Monopoly-style, hoping to spend money on big projects to wrap it all up. I hate to be the type of player that bemoans Random Number Generation but the dice really boned me here. Little info cards let you know the odds but knowing the odds doesn’t change much on the roll. Found myself flushed by turn after turn with every pip face up except the one I needed. But it keeps things spicy and quick, and demanding coins from the other players always satisfies.
Been pining after Radlands since I read one or two reviews that compared it to Netrunner, oh sweet Netrunner. A one-deck hand-builder for two players to flip it out across three lanes. Each card offers a couple of options, with a handful of standbys in a Water Tower and a Raiding Party to offset a cold deck. Took a smidge longer to really lock in than I would have thought but after that it really was off to the junkyard races. Each player is desperately trying to make rubble of the other’s camps, while setting out people to defend those camps and events to make things a little more interesting. Water is the key resource and impossible to really stockpile unless you’re the lucky one who pulls every Muse card, but I digress. Full of difficult decisions and tuned to keep the cards flying, it’s not quite the cyber-labyrinth it was compared to but perhaps an easier entry point heading in that direction.
Levi Rubeck is a critic and poet currently living in the Boston area. Check his links at levirubeck.com.