Bob Dunn | Game On: What to look out for this year in games

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Another PAX East is in the books and with it, hints of what's to come in the year ahead in gaming.

There were the big announcements, of course. For example, Borderlands 3 was officially revealed with a new trailer and Mortal Kombat 11 was playable on several different platforms, but, if those games have any surprises in store for players, they weren't readily apparent.

Mortal Kombat 11 is, well, more Mortal Kombat, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's not going out on much of a limb, either.

No, the biggest surprises this year came from some of the smallest studios; games created by developers who can afford to take bigger risks with their art, both thematically and technologically, not beholden to a major corporation trying to launch and capitalize on "the next big thing."

Games that embrace the weird and reinvent the familiar are far more interesting.

We recently covered some of the art on display at PAX East this year, created by individuals and small studios, but wanted to make some space for more of the things that caught our attention.

Dreams, by Media Molecule, for Playstation 4, release date TBD

The rumors are true; this game exists.

The long-talked-about latest project from Media Molecule, the studio responsible for the Little Big Planet games, Dreams triples-down on the creation and sharing aspects established in those games and, from what we've seen of the tools so far, the potential is remarkable.

Early access for creators begins Tuesday, April 16. Those creators will then use the in-game tools to create their own games and content, which will be playable when the full game releases, which is expected to be sometime this year.

There were several in-game creations on display at PAX this year, including a level inspired by Super Mario World, complete with appropriately blocky pixel-based art and at least one time-trial obstacle course with the type of polished 3-D high-resolution renderings, one might expect from a modern platformer.

The full release will feature a story mode for those who would rather play than create.

Speaking Simulator, from Affable Games, available now on Steam

One of the most wonderfully weird experiences at PAX East this year, Speaking Simulator puts you in the role of an obtuse alien robot trying to infiltrate human society by having "completely normal," conversations with people.

The player accomplishes this by using a mouse and keyboard to manipulate the robot's tongue and mouth to form words. The longer it takes to pull off, the more suspicion is raised and your robot begins to break down and malfunction.

Players can take comfort in knowing that the conversations created in Speaking Simulator are (probably) more awkward than any they've experienced in real life.

Bus Simulator, from Still Alive Studios. Available now on Steam, coming to PS4 and XBox One later this year

Yes, you read that correctly. A bus simulator.

I was a doubter, too. In fact, I thought I was on the wrong end of an elaborate prank when I got the invitation to check it out.

I was wrong.

The game (not to be confused with the deliberately terrible Desert Bus) puts players in the driver's seat of a virtual version of an actual, licensed bus and tasks you with running routes, picking up and discharging passengers and keeping a schedule.

The game itself is surprisingly engaging and relaxing and has a low penalty for making mistakes, like crashing into other vehicles.

After nailing down the basics, players then manage their own bus company, buy new and more efficient buses and expand their routes.

It will probably be the most fun you'll have driving a bus, unless, you know, you already really like driving buses.

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Falcon Age, from Outerloop Games, for PS4 and PSVR, available now

A beautiful, first-person action-adventure game in which the player hunts animals, collects resources and battles robots with the aid of a falcon.

Players who got their hands on the game developed an almost instant bond to their bird, which they virtually raise, train and heal throughout the game that can typically be completed in about seven hours or so.

Yes, you can also dress up your bird, with cosmetic items found in-game, some of which affect gameplay, like making your bird harder to be detected by enemies.

Combat requires coordinating with your falcon to eliminate enemies and, when it takes damage, you have to remove the needles those enemies fire from the bird's body to help it recuperate, It's oddly heart-wrenching to see your virtual companion in pain and administering aid actually deepens the bond between player and bird of prey. You've been warned.

Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove, from Humannature Studios, on Steam, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch, available now

No wave of '90s nostalgia would be complete without a reboot of this cult classic.

The new game takes elements of the 1991 Sega Genesis original and incorporates modern touches including new enemies to avoid like an Internet Troll and the Texting Person, who is so engrossed with their phone, they walk right over whatever is in front of them.

The candy-colored graphics update the blocky pixel art of the original, but still invokes the look and feel of the original.

"What we wanted you to see on the screen with this game, were the blanks you filled in when you were playing the old one," said Nathan Shorts, lead artist on the game.

The game also features an updated soundtrack, inspired by the original games and co-written by bassist Cody Wright and has both local and online cooperative play.

And, the best part is, because of advances in the design of modern game controllers, you can play all you want with no "Sega thumb."

Aqua Lungers, from WarpedCore Studio, on Steam, early access available now

One of the games at PAX East this year riding the wave of renewed attention on offline cooperative play ("couch co-op") is Aqua Lungers, a fast-paced battle for treasure against up to three other players and enemies within the game itself.

Players frantically scramble through underwater environments and gather as much treasure as they can carry, while avoiding enemies and other players en route to depositing their loot in a designated chest.

Rounds quickly turn into a virtual tug-of-war between players trying to find a strategic middle-ground between loading up your avatar with gold (which slows you down) and navigating a path back to your bank before other players make off with your efforts.

If you were a fan of 2011's Hoard for the PS3, or just like taking stuff from your friends for points, you'll probably find a lot to like here.

These games and the ones we've already discussed, represent only a small fraction of those that were on display and playable at PAX East.

Most won't have a multi-million dollar ad campaign alerting gamers to their existence, and instead will rely heavily on word-of-mouth and social media.

I'm as guilty as any gamer out there when it comes to having overlooked smaller and independent games, but PAX East has changed that.

I was impressed and inspired by the creative energy and the willingness to take chances displayed by these artists and I happily encourage others to join me in championing the smaller and the stranger games out in the world, the way one would encourage people to support their local music or literary scenes.

Play smaller games, tell your friends about them, repeat.

And, as always, game on.

Bob Dunn is The Eagle's courts reporter. When he's not hanging around the courthouse, he can usually be found playing "Destiny 2." You can reach Bob via email at bdunn@berkshireeagle.com and at @BobDunn413 on Twitter.


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