SEATTLE—In-person video game conventions are back! Kind of!
Nerdy conventions and other physical events began reappearing in public halls late last year, though what a difference a year makes. PAX West 2021 was my first in-person convention since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but the event was a ghost town, full of empty, blacked-out spaces and massive gaps in the cast of showcasing companies. Last week’s PAX West 2022, on the other hand, finally felt like the real deal, and it was fortunately met by a vigilant, mask-wearing crowd.
Some gaming companies have apparently moved on from local convention participation, with Microsoft and Sony not hosting PAX West booths (though each had a presence at last month’s boisterous Gamescom 2022 in Cologne, Germany). Hence, this post-PAX “coolest upcoming games” feature is far from comprehensive, owing as much to missing companies as to specific games not demoing well in packed convention halls. Even so, we played enough diverse fare to feel comfortable shouting out solid PAX West highlights.
Rift of the Necrodancer
Release date TBA; platforms TBA | Official site
The studio behind 2015 indie smash Crypt of the Necrodancer clearly cares about new ideas in the well-worn genre of rhythm gaming. That’s proven by PAX West’s promising world gameplay premiere of the new spinoff Rift of the Necrodancer, which basically looks like a greatest-hits collection of other popular rhythm game concepts, only beefed up by the genre experts at Brace Yourself Games.
This week’s demo includes three modes, and each directly compares to a previous hit: Guitar Hero, Rhythm Heaven, and Punch-Out!!. The first looks deceptively familiar. Musical notes fall from the top of the screen to a line at the bottom, and when they cross this line, you must tap the corresponding button to the beat to clear the note.
But what if the notes were monsters—each with their own personalities and movement patterns, thus jumping or shifting as they approach the clear line? This tweak to the Guitar Hero formula feels appropriate for the Necrodancer series, which originally combined top-down monster battles with rhythm-based taps, and already in the new demo, the spinoff’s take on this concept feels incredibly fresh. Each monster has a unique pattern as it descends to the beat of catchy tunes, and the fun kicks into gear when multiple monster types fill the screen. One might need to be tapped twice or thrice to be cleared, shifting to the right or left after each tap. Another might constantly shift between lanes during its descent.
Rift‘s boxing mode combines familiar Punch-Out!! combat with rhythm-based responses, and I’m shocked nobody thought of this before. Punch-Out!!, after all, revolves around memorization and pattern recognition, which is similar to the toughest rhythm-gaming challenges, and I was immediately charmed by the sensation of dodging, blocking, and countering with catchy songs as reference points. If Nintendo isn’t going to make a Punch-Out!! sequel any time soon, then this already seems like a good alternative.
Meanwhile, the mode that mimics Rhythm Heaven feels a little less unique, but that’s not a complaint. The sample level I played looks and feels a lot like Nintendo’s niche hit, particularly in terms of upbeat tunes and detailed, adorable animations to tap buttons along to. It’s unclear if BYG has other modes or surprises in store for the final version of Rift; the game is apparently early in development, so we’re far off from such confirmations, let alone a release date or confirmed platforms beyond Windows. But already, we’re excited by this spinoff’s possibilities.