You’d think that after spending four days at Summer Game Fest playing dozens of games (including heavy-hitters like Mortal Kombat 1 and Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown) that we’d be a little demoed-out. But nothing rejuvenates my excitement about video games more than playing innovative indies that are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. That’s exactly what this year’s Tribeca Fest delivered this year, with seven eye-catching games that were playable at the festival.
This year’s selections are a diverse bunch of games hailing from studios all around the world; the list included titles from Australia, Ecuador, and even Qatar. It isn’t just their countries of origin that makes them stand out though. Each title on display this year is entirely unique, offering a wide range of play experiences that prove how much more ground there is to break within the medium.
I attended this year’s Tribeca Fest and went hands-on with the selections. Despite having just spent a long weekend playing dozens of games, I was still wowed. From a first-person soccer game with an astonishing art style to a phenomenal puzzle game about decoding foreign languages, you should make sure to keep all of these games on your radar.
If you’ve always wished you could recapture the experience of playing Return of the Obra Dinn for the first time, Chants of Sennaar is for you. Published by Focus Interactive, the colorful adventure has players navigating a foreign world filled with languages they don’t understand. The hook here is that players need to decode what every symbol they come across means and record them in a notebook. In an opening puzzle, I found a lever with some symbols at its up and down positions. I hypothesized that those symbols might translate to “Up pull” and “down pull,” marking my guess down in my notebook. I’d later realize they actually meant “open door” and “close door” by seeing those symbols used in a different context. It’s an ingenious idea that had me using logic to decode languages with very little information to go on. With a September 5 release date planned, Chants of Sennaar could be a sleeper hit for me come “game of the year” season.
I’ve had my eye on Goodbye Volcano High ever since it was revealed during a PlayStation stream. How could I not be intrigued by the idea of a high school coming-of-age story about punk-rocking dinosaurs facing extinction? The demo I played at Tribeca Fest only validated that curiosity. I only got a quick glimpse of the story, which focused on its visual novel elements specifically, but I’m already charmed by its witty writing and lovable dino-teens. It seems like developer KO_OP is telling a relatable young adult story here about kids struggling to grow up in a world that feels like its ending. It’s a narrative that feels especially prescient in a world where the threat of climate change can make it difficult to see a future worth fighting for.
Despelote is the kind of game that could catch anyone’s eye from across the room. That’s thanks to its alluring art style which drapes its environments in a purple and orange filter. But there’s much more to it than that. Despelote is a slice-of-life tale about a soccer-obsessed eight-year-old growing up in Quito during Ecudor’s 2001 World Cup run. During my demo, I’d explore the city in first-person, stopping to kick balls around with my friends and strangers. It isn’t just a game about soccer, though. As I live out my soccer dreams, I catch adults in the background talking about some of the political struggles facing the country. Or at least I think I do. I’m too busy kicking to catch it all, and that seems to be the point. Despelote seems to show an honest depiction of childhood, where the high stakes of the real world become background noise to innocent kids.
We didn’t go hands-on with the 90-minute demo of The Expanse: A Telltale Series at Tribeca Fest, but that’s only because we’d played it a few weeks before. From that experience, we know exactly how the upcoming sci-fi game became an official selection. Telltale’s latest is shaping up to be its most ambitious narrative game yet, with zero gravity movement and impactful choices. It’s a thoughtful adaptation of the sprawling sci-fi series, one that shows that Telltale is ready to reclaim its crown as a leading developer in the narrative adventure space. As Tomas Franzese wrote in his preview for the game, “The Expanse demonstrates that by choosing the right IPs and getting the most potential possible out of them, narrative adventure games can feel just as intriguing and tense as something like Dead Space.”
Out of all the selections featured this year, Nightscape has the most intriguing backstory. It comes from Mezan Studios, a small development team based in Qatar. The title is a 2.5D platformer where players call on the power of the constellations to traverse a darkened world. I spoke to Mezan founder Hamad Al-Khater at the show, who explained that Qatar has an almost non-existent development scene, despite the fact that the country has a massive gaming audience. His team hopes to change that with Nightscape, but the game also seeks to provide better representation of the Middle East, as the area tends to just become fodder for war games like Call of Duty in mainstream media. With a story rooted in ancient Arabian stories, Nightscape seems like it’ll offer a change in narrative that the video game industry desperately needs to see.
Developer Inkle isn’t a household name, but the studio is responsible for some of the most intriguing indies out there, including Heaven’s Vault and 80 Days. Its next game, A Highland Song, takes players on a gorgeous adventure through the Scottish Highlands. While the demo playable at Tribeca Fest doesn’t give a full picture of the game outside of its “open platforming” system, I had a lovely time soaking in its picaresque visuals and learning about its fiercely independent protagonist, Moira. Considering Inkle’s track record, all of that is more than enough to keep me interested in A Highland Song.
There are tons of music-based video games, but I can’t say there are many straight-up musicals. That’s going to change with Stray Gods: The Role-Playing Musical. The upcoming indie is a visual novel murder mystery story about Greek gods and musical theater, which is quite the pitch. I’d get to see 30 minutes of the unique indie at Tribeca Fest, getting a feel for its colorful world and dialogue choices systems. But more importantly, I’d get to hear a few of its original songs. The few numbers I heard were unabashedly theatrical, moving the story along through the power of song. While the slice I played was very light on actual player interaction, I did have the power to shape where those songs went lyrically and that alone is an impressive feat. If you want to see it for yourself, you won’t have to wait long. Stray Gods: The Role-Playing Musical launches on August 3.
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